I frowned when I looked at the pole beans. They weren’t a lush, happy green. Some of the leaves were turning yellow. A few had turned brown and fallen to the ground. This had happened last year, too. Were pesky insects or a virus damaging my bean crop?
Shaking my head, I leaned into the shovel as I dug a hole between the garden rows. When it was deep enough I picked up a bowl filled with potato peals, apple cores, crushed egg shells and banana peels, that I had brought out from the house. Dumping the compost materials into the hole, I covered it with dirt.
Leaning on the shovel, I thought about how I tested the soil several years ago, shortly after my husband Arnie had died. My son-in-law, Mike, had taken over Arnie’s Farm Care business. When he read the results to me, he advised, “You need to add organic matter to the soil.”
Because of his advice, every summer I bury kitchen scraps and in the fall and gather dried maple leaves for the soil. Glancing around at my walkway vegetable graveyard, I announced to my garden, “The soil needs to be tested again. I have a feeling that something more than organic matter is needed.”
During his last years, Arnie had turned toward soil management for the farmers. He’d once told me, “How can the farmers have healthy cows if the crops they grow don’t contain the nutrition they need?”
When it came to my garden, Arnie had me use liquid fish fertilizer. It can be applied to the soil, but he preferred foliar feeding, diluting the liquid fertilizer in water and spraying it on the leaves of the plants. The lush plants lapped it up. I had almost needed a machete to get from one end of the garden to the other!
A few years after Arnie was gone, I poured the last of the liquid fish fertilizer from his inventory, on the garden soil. The squash plants that year were so slap-happy invigorated by the rich feeding, their vines covered one third of my big garden and had leaves that were hip-high.
To have soil tested, a cup of dirt should be gathered from several places in the garden. I took samples from each corner and from random spots in the center, a pail of dirt in total. After stirring it, I put a cup or two of the mixture into a Zip-lock bag and took it to the county agricultural lab.
Talking on the phone to my daughter Tammie shortly after I received my soil analysis, I said, “The soil in my garden has a fairly high pH and is very high in Phosphorus. Unfortunately, the potassium level is not merely low, but very low.”
My daughter, knowing that bananas contain potassium said, “You need to bury banana peels in the garden.”
I laughed, “I’m already doing that, but I think more is needed than a random bunch of banana peels. I’m reminded of when you were sick as a very small baby. Your potassium level was low. The doctor said he’d give you potassium through an IV. I told him, ‘But I’ve been feeding her bananas. Hasn’t that helped?’”
He answered, “Her potassium is so low, she would need to eat a whole banana tree!”
Delighted to hear a new childhood story about herself, Tammie said with a chuckle, “You’ve never told me this before.”
I said, “The yellowing leaves on my pole beans is a symptom of the low potassium in my garden soil. Now I’m looking for a source of potassium that won’t carry additional phosphorus and is organic.
“As when you were an infant, my garden needs a mega dose of an important mineral. I could very well ask a plant doctor, “But I’ve been feeding the soil banana peels. Didn’t that help?
“His answer would be similar to your pediatrician’s, “Your garden soil is so low in potassium, you’d have to compost an entire banana tree!”