Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Understanding Your Soil For Fall Vegetable Gardening

Helen Hartung provides tips on how to improve soil in time for fall vegetable gardening

We are fortunate to live in a mild Mediterranean climate with several growing seasons. Fall is the perfect to time to plant a cooler season vegetable garden — though we still get a few hot days, like today, generally the nights are cooler. So say goodbye to the last of the summer tomatoes and get your garden ready to start growing all kinds of greens, lettuces, herbs, carrots, potatoes, onion, garlic, etc.

Before you plant anything, prepare your soil, suggested two local gardening experts at a recent gardening discussion. For some, it’s maybe easiest to grow vegetables in a raised bed or planting box because our slow draining, clay soil is less than ideal. But if you’ve got an area in your back yard or even front yard that’s available, you can amend the soil with some organic products.

“I used to make mounds so I was actually planting above the soil,” explained Windsor Square gardener Judy Kirshner, whose front yard garden on Windsor was legendary. Kirshner has moved nearby and is now doing most of her gardening in the back, but the new owners of her former garden are committed gardeners so it should be interesting to see what they do with the space.

Kirshner and fellow gardener Helen Hartung recommend using organic amendment products that are increasingly more available at local hardware stores, including Home Depot and Anawalt Lumber on Highland Avenue.

But let’s back up for a moment. What does organic really mean? It’s simply means gardening in harmony with nature, explained Gilbert and Hartung.

“Organic gardeners are concerned with feeding the soil, not just the plant,” they explained. “Organic gardening is a slower process of feeding the soil and allowing the plants to draw their nutrients from the soil as it would happen naturally.

By feeding the soil with decayed matter like compost and mulch, plants are less stressed and more productive.

Another way to feed the soil is to plant a cover crop, like clover, fava beans or alfalfa which is plowed back into the soil. But that’s best done on a larger scale, requiring more space that most urban gardeners will have.

Not surprisingly, the best time to amend your soil is in the fall in October and in the spring in March before you plant your next garden.

Which begs another basic question, what is soil?

Soil Classes

Soil is essentially rock that degrades over time and becomes dirt. There are essentially three types of soil — sand, silt and clay.  For agriculture, a loam soil is considered “ideal.” The mineral composition of a loam soil might be 40% sand, 40% silt and the balance 20% clay. Only the fertile midwest has naturally occurring loam soil. Gardeners in the rest of the country must amend their soil for different deficiencies.

In the West, and all over Los Angeles, in particular, we have clay soil. Clay soil holds water and doesn’t drain well, so plants that need good drainage are not likely to do as well in our climate.

“We can’t change our soil structure,” explained Hartung, “but we can improve it.  And we can avoid making it worse by doing things that further compact the soil not working in the garden after it rains and avoid compacting the soil even further. Also, you may have different kinds of soils in your own yard. Different conditions in your yard can make one spot more ideal for plants.

The best way to amend the soil is to add compost and mulch. So what’s the difference between compost and mulch? Both are natural materials and by-products of decayed materials…but they are used differently. Compost is placed on the top of the soil as a thin layer of decayed material that is absorbed into the soil. Mulch is laid as a more generous thick layer placed on top to keep in moisture. Both help improve the structure of the soil, which is required in our area.

If your want to be sure you are only using organic materials, be sure to read all the labels of the bags. You can look for the OMRI (Organic Material Research Institute) label, which rates all the materials to certify they are organic.

In the United States, the term “organic” is federally regulated and governed by standards in the Code of Federal Regulations only when used on food or fiber products. However, the term “organic” is not currently regulated for many non-food products such as pet food, cosmetics, household products and fertilizers. As a result, almost any fertilizer can use the term “organic” on the label. The OMRI certification assures you that the products you use in your home garden would meet organic farming standards required for growers.

The next thing you will want to do is feed your soil with organic fertilizers as well as amendments like worm castings, compost and mulch, which all break down into the soil when watered, even with a slow drip system.

Fertilizers come in three basic forms:

  • Dry powder, which can be added to the soil then watered.
  • Water soluble, which can be applied when watering.
  • And a liquid form that is sprayed directly on the leaves of plants, which absorb the elements. (This is also called foliar feeding.)

But be forewarned, some fertilizers are really appealing to dogs. You may want to consider keeping your dogs away from the garden for a day or two. Gilbert suggested sprinkling  cayenne pepper around as a possible safe deterrent for dogs. 

All fertilizers are made of three components: nitrogen (N), phosphate (P), potassium (K), and are marked with a formula such as 3-15-0 on the bag. The formula refers to the relative ratio of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium in the fertilizer. Check the labels to find the right fertilizer for what you want to plant. Nitrogen promotes green leaves and phosphate promotes the root development, flowering and fruits. In general, all organic fertilizers have lower compounds than conventional fertilizers.

Windsor Square gardeners Judy Kirshner  and Helen Hartung dig deep into soil discussion

Kirshner and Hartung definitely don’t recommend using any kind of manure, especially for anything you may want to eat. First, it’s too high in nitrogen and requires a lot of water to make sure it doesn’t burn the plant. Second, the animals producing the manure may not be fed an organic diet and those chemicals end up in the soil. It’s best to avoid using manure on your lawns as well, because the runoff from watering or winter rains can contaminate your entire yard as well as add unwanted chemicals to the region’s water supply.

Miracle Gro brand fertilizer is also not recommend, for similar reasons. It’s filled with chemicals that leech into the water table, and it’s also high in nitrogen and ammonia, which give you fast results but also stress the plants. The use of Miracle Gro continues, however, because people are often persuaded because of the volume of advertising and the huge range of products. Fortunately, there are many organic alternatives that are safe and effective.

Finally, if you decide planting in small raised beds or pots is best for your fall crops, make sure you are using a good potting mix that is light and fluffy, which allows for good drainage, and free of any insects and diseases in the soil. Potting mix is made from composted bark, peat moss, and other ingredients that do not include earthen soil. It is sterile and usually contains perlite, a roundish white substance made from volcanic ash, which is added to promote drainage. Potting soil also has nutrients in it for plants. Again, be sure to read the labels to find the right materials for your fall  garden.


Secrets of Great Soil by Elizabeth P. Stell

Down to Earth™ Gardening Guide (pdf)

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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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