Manor Moments

Trailside Organic Farm November 2021 Update

November 2021

Submitted by Ian Frederick, Trailside Organic Farm Manager

As fall continues, you may be wondering what the manager of an upcoming organic vegetable farm will possibly be doing when the ground freezes over. Maybe I will be vacationing on a tropical island. Could hibernation be a possibility? Nope- I’ll be using the winter months wisely.

Soil probe leaning against a tree
Soil Probe

Recently, I took soil samples at the Trailside Organic Farm at a recommended depth of six inches below the surface using the tool pictured, a soil probe. My 13 sample locations represented the entire growing space, and were taken at roughly equal distances apart. I am working on drying, breaking apart and mixing together the samples before sending out one cup of soil for testing.

Unlike many small vegetable farming operations which grow in soil historically used (and sometimes abused!) by farming operations, the Trailside Organic Farm will be starting fresh with topsoil brought in from a streambank restoration project. Foremost, I will need to learn about the properties of this soil before making too many assumptions about the best ways to cultivate, amend, and grow in it. This means that my most important winter job will be reviewing the results and recommendations of the soil samples we are sending to Penn State’s Agricultural Analytical Lab. I will be spending a significant amount of time educating myself on the best ways to make this specific soil healthier so that we will grow productive, nutrient-dense crops for years to come.

I plan to test for organic matter, fertility, pH, soluble salts and particle size. Organic matter is an extremely important component of soil health. Higher levels lead to a steady nutrient release, thriving populations of microorganisms, optimum air holding abilities, ideal water retention properties, proper drainage and less erosion. An organic matter composition of eight percent or higher is one sign of a really healthy soil, but that goal can take years of composting and cover cropping to achieve.

Nutrient availability is necessary for productive crops, and the fertility report will determine whether Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, Calcium and Magnesium levels are high, low or just right for our crops. Knowing the levels of each specific nutrient is a powerful tool that will help myself as an organic grower choose the correct fertilizer blend. In terms of pH and soluble salts, less-than-ideal levels can inhibit plant growth and microorganism populations in the soil. Knowing ahead of the growing season whether these levels need to be adjusted will allow me to get a jump start on amending the soil to avoid plant growth issues in the future. Finally, having a soil particle size analysis at my disposal will provide significant insight into water retention and drainage properties of the soil. This information could also dictate the ideal cover crop and tillage methods that should be used in the future.

Resilient soil doesn’t always come easily- it takes education, hard work, trust in proven regenerative practices and, most definitely, time!