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Venice Williams On The Importance Of Soil In A Healthy Milwaukee Garden

Farmer with New Plant
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Getting an at-home soil test kit can help any gardener during planting season to learn more about the health and well-being of the garden's foundation.

If you’re a gardener in the city of Milwaukee, there’s a good chance you’ve heard of Venice Williams. She’s the executive director of Alice’s Garden and a strong advocate for urban agriculture. Through her work, she’s created a community dedicated to the health and benefits of organic gardening.

Now, she’s joining Lake Effect for a regular segment we call Dig In! — a chance to talk about gardening, herbs and preparing healthy food. This month, she talks about the very foundation of every garden: soil — not dirt.

“Dirt is a substance like mud or dust, get this, that soils someone or something. So soil is actually the verb that’s used to describe dirt. But soil is first of all a living organism,” she says. “We always say that a teaspoon of soil contains more living organisms than there are people in the world.”

So, when it comes to planning out a garden, understanding the soil is an important first step to learn which types of plants might thrive best. Williams recommends purchasing a simple at-home soil test kit because this won’t be the first time something is trying to grow in the area and it’s key to know the history of the land.

“We know that land has a story, garden soil also has a story and I’m going to guess that for most of us when we move into homes or even if we’re in a rental garden space, someone has cultivated something there before. So, learning the history of that soil and what happened before you came along is part of trying to understand what you can, and what that soil is ready to receive,” she explains.

When testing the soil, Williams recommends taking samples from different locations throughout the garden. This will help identify if past growers were using different plants or materials that could change the soil in different spots.

No matter what you’re growing, she says the most important factor in healthy soil is proper drainage. Dense soil can stop nutrients or become waterlogged, while very loose soil can make it hard for any water to be retained.

Once that proper density is found, rotating crops becomes important so that certain nutrients aren’t being stripped from the soil.

“All of those vegetables are going to take what they need, they’re not going to be in the ground and saying, ‘Oh, I’m just going to a little bit of this phosphorus. Oh, I’m just going to take a little bit of this nitrogen.' Plants are going to take what they need to survive,” she says.

One resource Williams suggests for learning organic ways to manage soil health is Compost Teas for the Organic Grower, a book written by orchardist Eric Fisher.

“The book is one of my bed companions every spring and every autumn,” she says.

For gardeners looking to jumpstart their growing season, Alice’s Garden is holding an organic plant sale on Monday, May 24 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. in partnership with local plant shop Whatever Comes Naturally.

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