Overly Fertile Soil a Challenge to Young Plants

There really is such a thing as too healthy soil. Whenever you build a new raised bed, it takes a while to build and condition the soil to be productive and healthy. Usually, the problem is that soil doesn’t have enough nutrients. But with such large beds, over 24″ deep, finding the right mix was challenging. We put in what we thought was a good balance of top soil with compost manure and organic compost, layered and mixed together with a bit of peat moss to lighten and help aerate the soil. We toped off the beds with the compost created and donated by the City of New York, which has recently expanded its food composting program.


We watched healthy strong seedlings yellow and almost shrink. No, the garden wasn’t overwatered…not really under watered either. Yet almost all of the summer plants, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and okra, barely grew at all. One tomato plant remained the same size as when it went in for almost two months.


In fact, it soon became apparent that the soil was too fertile, and yet the plants were not getting the proper nutrients. The compost from the City, being a relatively new expansion to meet the growing demand, may not have “cured” enough and was actually stealing the nutrients from the plants.  We had to do something before all our work withered away and died and the youth we intended to benefit be left without a garden this season.


As they say about milk in coffee, you can always add more, but you can’t take it out. Yet we set out to remove as much of the ultra-rich but imbalanced soil mix as possible and replace it with plain topsoil. We did this by trenching around each of the plants by hand with a trowel, over 10 inches down into the bed, leaving the soil at and under the roots in tact. We then added plain topsoil into the trenches and as a top-dressing around the plants, and watered repeatedly, hoping that by osmosis, some of the nutrients at the plants’ roots would seep away into the less fertile top soil.


And then we waited.

Indeed, a few weeks later, some signs of hope…the yellow faded and the plants recovered a pale, then bright, green color. A few started growing flowers, though they lagged well behind the season in size and productivity–late July looked like late May/early June.

We are happy to report that the plants are all healthy and hardy, and though still a good month behind, will be full and productive by mid-September. The good news is that the Children’s Garden gets abundant sunshine, even as the days shorten, so they should do well in the coming weeks and kids returning to neighboring schools and after-school programs will have plenty to harvest and learn as the season winds down.

But it’s a fair statement that we haven’t had to fertilize the Children’s Garden at all this season. We’ll likely put it to bed with a cover crop of buckwheat and test the soil come spring before we do any amendments for next season.


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