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Healthy Soil for a Sustainable Harvest

Our Giving Garden, which grows nutritious vegetables entirely for donation to local food pantries and soup kitchens, is the main project of our MassLIFT-AmeriCorps member Diego Irizarry-Gerould. His work as Land Stewardship Coordinator and the many hours put in by our volunteers, are essential for the success of the Giving Garden, which grew more than 6,500 pounds of produce for donation last year.

Diego with four clear bins of dirt in the office, placing one bin of dirt into a plastic ziploc bag.
Diego prepares the soil samples to be sent to the lab

One of the important factors that contribute to a healthy harvest is the quality of the soil. So, before the beginning of this year’s growing season, Diego sampled the soil in the Giving Garden and the nearby areas to determine the pH and levels of nutrients and organic matter. This information helped us make decisions about what types of soil amendments and practices needed to be incorporated during the upcoming growing season.

The soil analysis, conducted at the UMASS Soil Testing Lab, indicated that the Garden was slightly more acidic than optimal for the majority of the plants we grow, but not enough to necessitate treatment. The pH was 6.2, with an optimal range being 6.5-7.0. We may treat the soil with agricultural lime in the future to help neutralize the pH. Other nutrients were also found to be within or near the ideal range.

Volunteers help spread compost

The results also showed 4.7% organic matter, which means we have been doing a good job managing the soil fertility. Diego and our Giving Garden volunteers have been using compost from Bear Path Compost in Whately as their main fertilizer as its high content of organic matter feeds the soil biology and enables the soil to hold more moisture. We also buy this compost in bulk and resell it by the bucket and wheelbarrow to community gardeners.

Nearby areas that have not been cropped or were cover cropped only last season had only 2% organic matter and were much more acidic with low nutrient levels, suggesting the need for treatment with lime and more work to build organic matter. Because compost is relatively expensive and because some of this land is very closer to the Mill River and in its floodplain, and therefore not optimal for intensive cropping, our short-term plan for this area is to continue to plant and incorporate cover crops that smother weeds and increase organic matter. We have also engaged a part-time summer intern, Vincent Frano, who will conduct research on “productive conservation” to help us identify strategies for sustainable and soil-building uses of these low-lying areas that can provide income opportunities for small farmers.

Lettuce growing in the Giving Garden

We plan to test the soil again before next year’s crops are planted to see how this year’s practices have affected the soil’s health.

The soil is our partner in growing food in the Giving Garden, and it is crucial to give back to the soil to compensate for the nutrients that are removed by growing and harvesting produce. By making the health of the soil a priority, we can continue to get good yields from the land, allowing us to continue our work growing food for local people!

Diego with shovel and wheelbarrow, shoveling from two large piles of compost
Diego shoveling compost in the Giving Garden
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