Lately, I’ve been talking about the produce industry (and why it sucks). Regardless of your opinion about the industry, one thing’s for sure: we all need to eat. More and more people are becoming conscious of what they put into their bodies. What easier way than to grow your own veggies?
Whether you’re a green thumb or a total gardening newbie, there are many components that go into producing a healthy, fruitful crop, some of which, like the weather, are out of a gardener or farmer’s control. It can be daunting to look at everything it takes to grow vegetables at once; however, if each item is broken down for its individual value, it becomes clear that growing produce is truly a science, not an art.
Understanding why a plant needs sunlight or water is pretty straightforward for anyone who’s taken a science class past the third grade. Getting why certain plants need more or less of each is where it gets complicated. Something that remains a mystery to beginning growers, and quite honestly, at times, even experienced farmers, is soil.
People obviously know that a plant needs soil to grow, but it does so much more than anchor a tomato bush to the ground. It provides nutrients that are critical to a plant’s health and produce. When it comes to vegetables, not just any soil will do. There are specific things that we folks in the produce industry always look for when picking the perfect place to grow our plants.
1. Conduct a soil test.
The key to perfect soil is the right balance of different nutrients and minerals. While there are ways to tell, by examining plants if the balance is off, why wait for your plants to suffer before taking action? Soil tests are easy to obtain at garden stores and only need to be done annually (or if something looks seriously wrong with your crop). Soil tests provide numerical values for what’s happening, so you can adjust or determine your next steps.
2. Load up on organic material.
What’s organic material, you ask? It’s decaying plant or animal material, which usually includes compost, manure, or leaf mold. Why do you need it? Because it’s the most important ingredient in healthy, enriched soil. It provides many of the nutrients and minerals necessary for plants to grow. As I said earlier, soil is more than just a home for plants, it also acts as a lifesource. Organic material, like compost or manure, not only helps a plant’s roots spread out and latch into place, it also gives plants the nutritional content they need to grow quickly. When in doubt, a good rule is to always add more organic material.
3. Provide nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as needed.
Plants need minerals to grow, and these three are king. If your soil is depleted from one, there are a couple ways to go about solving the issue. You can use inorganic fertilizers that are specifically made to fortify one of the elements. For larger scale planters, this is often the more efficient option. If you are working in a smaller garden, or organic growth is a priority for you, there are naturally occurring solutions to combat a lack of each mineral. For nitrogen, manure is a good solution, rock phosphate for phosphorus, and for potassium, greensand should fix the problem. While other nutrients and minerals, like copper, manganese, and molybdenum make up healthy soil, it is most important that nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels are where they need to be.
4. Balance your pH.
For most vegetables, a soil with a pH between six and seven is perfect. Do research for what’s right for your specific vegetable and either raise or lower the acidity — there are several ways to do either, so just pick one that works best with the size of your garden and the resources you have available.
5. Rotate your plants.
Soil is not a gift that keeps on giving. It needs time to rejuvenate after seasons of giving up nutrients and minerals. If you have a larger garden, be sure to let your soil rest, both by leaving spots vacant and by switching up where you plant different vegetables.
In the produce world, it’s typical to over-dramatize the work we do and what goes into producing the crops we grow. The truth is, the process is simple if you take the time to check-in with what the plants need and understand how they get it. Even something as “seemingly” simple as dirt has different parts, but if you break them down and understand what they do, you too can learn the process.
A 20+ year entrepreneur with a no-B.S.-in-business attitude, Shaun Black has powered over $30 million in annual revenue with his trading and importing company, Diamond Produce, founded numerous successful local businesses, and remained on the cutting edge of national start-up industries for over a decade.
His experience as a grocer taught him the importance of exceeding expectations, one relationship at a time. Through systems, automation, and personal touch, his businesses deliver consistent retail-minded service. His “add value” approach to vendor and teams alike has paid dividends and been the driving force behind growth and profit.