Soil Prep for Summer Success

IMG_5303By Serafina Lombardi

Maybe you already have “peas ‘o poppin’” like Paul Romero of Española – but you also most likely have fields and beds that need to be worked up and made ready for the growing season. Building soil health gives us an abundant harvest in the short term; and protection against the drought in the long term. Building soil health is a year long process. Below are a few things you can do to get the soil ready for seeds to flourish.
When most of us think of soil preparation we think of disking, tilling, and making furrows. The days are getting warmer and longer, and all of us are ready for planting and the reward of our homegrown foods, but is our soil ready? One of the greatest factors of soil health is the microbial life, fungal and bacterial activity that enables the plants to access nutrients, provides protection from compaction, and increases water holding capacity, to name a few benefits. If we till when the soil is too dry we risk killing off much of the beneficial soil life in addition to losing topsoil due to drift. If you can, wait to till until we get a little moisture. If you have the capacity or are working a relatively small area you can use your prefered method of irrigation to get a little water on the ground and let it sit for a day before you work it.
“No-till” is one of the soil care options that is catching on. If you are prepping a medium sized vegetable garden you may want to invest in a broad fork. This is a two-handled digging/aerating implement with a horizontal metal “fork” at the bottom. This tool enables you to loosen the soil for aeration, promoting deeper water filtration without the disruption of soil structure that can be caused by tilling.
The first thing any soil scientist will tell you is “get your soil tested! How can you know what your soil needs without knowing what is in your soil . . .?” Most of us are familiar with our soil’s composition, but here are two ways to learn more. The test most of us are familiar with is for nutrients, which will let you know what types of amendments your soil might need. For this test you take a soil sample and send it to a lab (Ward Laboratories Inc. is one of the more affordable options). Another type of soil test looks at biological, physical and chemical characteristics of the soil and must be done on site – this is a more comprehensive overview of your soil health. Contact your local Natural Resource Conservation (NRCS) office if you are interested in this test. Also, contact your local Soil and Water Conservation District as many of them will have instructions for how to take a soil sample and offer a reimbursement for the cost of a soil test. These are some basics concerning what is good for soil health and can help you to tailor your soil building plan to the needs of your site.
If you have a piece of land that provided ample support to your crops last year, you might consider giving it a rest to build soil fertility, suppressing weeds, preventing erosion and attracting beneficial insects with a cover crop. There is no one right cover crop – but nearly all will do your land some good. Some prefer a “poly-culture”, for example a mixture of leguminous crops such as field peas that fix nitrogen in the soil along with vetch or hairy vetch which does a great job at weed suppression and creating organic mass to be incorporated with the soil. Oats and buckwheat are great in a spring cover crop once the weather is warm. Buckwheat fixes phosphorus, something most of NM soil is deficient in.
For fun, for the birds and for cut flowers throw in some sunflower seeds. Peas and oats can also be used in flower arrangements while oats and buckwheat can be harvested for grains. All these flowers make great forage for pollinators, but some say you get the maximum benefit if you cut before 10% of the plants are flowering. What a cover crop will cost you in water and seed it will repay you with soil health. With a fast growing cover crop you could still have time to rotate another crop if you have a long enough season.