Improving my soil (MN - Urban)
We have been gardening for three years, and have had nominal success with an ever-expanding garden. However, I am getting jealous of our neighbors' Epcot Center tomatoes, peppers and squash. I want in. Also, while carrots grow well enough, onions, radishes and beets are non-starters.
We finally have some compost ready, and have a system in place for that. We bought some at additional compost/manure as well. Questions.
-I have heard the pros and cons of double digging, and have no plans to do so. Am I correct to assume that it is usually beneficial to till in (I use a shovel) compost to underperforming soil? I have just been doing a 3 inch layer, and mixing it in to create a six inch mixed layer. Is this sufficient, or am I wasting my time? We have pretty dense clayish soil.
-Due to the weather, the worm population seems to be exploding. Is there any way I can take advantage? Should I transport some to my compost bin.
-While I eventually would like my garden fully organic, we do have some Miracle Gro in blue pellets and potting soil form. How and when can I best use this? We already have beans, peas and carrots sprouting from seed, but the bulk of our plants are going in this weekend.
-Any other advice? Sorry if these are stupid or redundant questions. Feel free to supply links.
We have heavy clay soil too. When preparing a new bed we do double dig but we let the tillers do it for us. First we break ground with the big tiller, remove all the sod, and then till the layer below that, and shovel that dirt out Then we go in with the little mantis type tiller and it does the hard work of tilling up the next layer of subsoil. After that's done we put in 2-3 inch layers of compost, peat moss, vermiculite, and last year's leaves and till that in. Then we shovel the first soil back in, repeat the layers and till that in. It's a lot of work but you only do it once, never walk on it so it compacts, and it's really necessary for good root crops. Following years we till in amendments with the little tiller. The amendments above go a long way to lighten and enrich your clay. Have a soil test done by your local cooperative extension. They'll tell you what specific amendments you need beyond those listed above. I know you said you're doing it by hand (we use to) but the rental of a big tiller and the investment in the little mantis-type tiller will save you a huge amount of backbreaking work and muscle pain.
Mammoth tomatoes, peppers, and squash also depend on the varieties you plant. Bigger is not always better. I always pick my summer squash in the small to medium range; more flavor, more tender, less seeds. We grow Giant Marconi peppers for stuffing (big horn-shaped variety) but also Carnival Bells, Mini Bells, and small, round, spicy Zavories. Tomatoes also come in all shapes, colors, and sizes, and all of them benefit from added calcium. You can do that by throwing a handful of dried milk or egg shells in the holes when you plant them or mix bone meal into the soil or side dress them with it.
Encourage your earthworms and definitely move some to the compost. They'll help break it down faster and leave castings which greatly enrich your compost and soil.
I admit it, I use Miracle Gro potting soil for whatever I'm growing outdoors in pots. This year it's 2 varieties of pumpkins, a mini-cucumber, nasturtiums for capers, 3 kinds of peppers, and some other things. I like it better than our home grown mix for potting because it comes without bugs and weed seeds.