Soil Sets the Stage for Sustainable Gardening

— Written By

Extension Master Gardener℠ Volunteers in Cabarrus County Show Us How

Gerri Harris and Renee Hedrick with butterflies in stages

EMG volunteers Gerri Harris and Renee Hedrick share the butterfly cycle with fairgoers.

At their booth at the Cabarrus County Fair, Extension Master Gardener℠ (EMG) volunteers spread the word about gardening resources available from NC State Extension. With an eye-catching display and friendly faces staffing the booth, EMG volunteers shared information, answered gardening questions and built awareness of the EMG program. The title of their booth, Diggin’ in the Dirt, captured this year’s theme: educating the public about soil. 

Image of booth at the Cabarrus County Fair

Master Gardener volunteer booth at the Cabarrus County Fair

For the most productive vegetable gardens and the healthiest landscapes, gardeners must investigate what lies beneath the surface. Soil acidity and nutrient levels vary widely across our state. EMG volunteers explained to fairgoers that soil testing is the best way to determine what nutrients your soil has and what nutrients your soil may lack, and if the pH of your soil needs to be adjusted.

While some gardeners are familiar with macronutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (referred to as N-P-K on fertilizer bags), soil pH and micronutrients also affect plant health and vigor. Fortunately, soil testing is an easy and inexpensive way to determine the nutrient status of your soil. In fact, for most of the year, there is no fee to submit samples to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDA&CS).

table with soil sampling forms and boxes

Soil sampling is a critical first step toward successful gardening.

Throughout the fair, EMG volunteers explained how to take a soil sample, passed out soil sample boxes and reminded the public that the boxes are available for pick up year-round at N.C. Cooperative Extension county centers. Once collected, soil samples should be mailed directly to the NCDA&CS for testing. Shortly thereafter, homeowners will receive a report in the mail with recommendations on how to supplement their soil to feed the types of plants they are growing. 

table with boxes of different soil ammendments

Samples of soil amendments.

Nutrient status is far from the only factor that affects soil and plant health. Soil texture and structure are also critical to healthy plant growth. Having a booth at the Fair gave EMG volunteers the opportunity to explain the process of soil testing, as well as display various kinds of soils and amendments, such as compost, that can be used to improve soil texture and structure.

But first, they needed to attract people to the booth. This was accomplished with a variety of interesting displays, including butterfly chrysalises that volunteers had collected. Over the course of the Fair, butterflies hatched before the eyes of curious children and adults alike, giving the EMG volunteers the opportunity to talk about insect life cycles and pollinators. A scavenger hunt also engaged families. Participants searched the booth for nature-related items and received a prize when finished. Children also enjoyed a planting activity that got them literally “diggin’ in the dirt.”

wheelbarrow with marigolds and planting tools

Hands-on planting activities engaged the kids.

EMG volunteer Gerri Harris describes the booth as an all-hands-on-deck affair, “It takes many volunteers to staff the booth throughout the nine-day event, for all the hours the Fair is open. And it’s a good way for new EMG volunteers to start to serve. We make an effort to pair new EMG volunteers with those with more experience.”  

To recognize this important outreach work, the Extension Master Gardener program in Cabarrus County received NC State Extension’s 2019 Search for Excellence Award. This award recognizes outstanding Extension Master Gardener volunteer-led educational, group projects that result in significant learning.Banner - Search for ExcellenceCongratulations to Extension Master Gardener volunteers Bob Wilber, Renee Hedrick, Gerri Harris, Larry and Tillie Heintz, Karen Andre, Jackie Ashton, Lynn MacDougall-Fleming, Mary Ann and Corky Johnson, Melody Wilkes, Patty Day, Nelson May, Joe Hutchins, Darnelle Hodge, Melanie Misenheimer, Jon Stewart, Sid Rauch, and Mitchell Hagler.

To learn more about the Extension Master Gardener program in Cabarrus County, contact, Lauren Duncan Hill, N.C. Cooperative Extension Horticulture Agent, Cabarrus County 704-920-3310.

ABOUT the North Carolina Extension Master Gardener Program

Master Gardener volunteers support the NC State Extension mission by educating residents about safe, effective and sustainable gardening practices that grow healthy people, gardens, landscapes, and communities. Their vision is a healthier world through environmental stewardship. 

To learn more about the NC State Extension Master Gardener program in your community, contact your local N.C. Cooperative Extension Center.