Have you been treating your garden soil like dirt? Improve soil health? Why?
Don’t fret! You’re not alone. It’s not green and covered with flowers and tender leaves. It’s lumpy, and scary things live in it.
You can’t be blamed for dealing with your soil only when you want to stick seeds and bulbs in it.
Even if you’re one of those who just can’t do dirt, you’re doing a gross injustice to your plants if you don’t invest some time to take care of your soil health. After all, dirt is much more than just musty powder that makes plants.
Soil is very much a living thing. When living things as you or I go to the doctor, any number of things could be the problem, not just one straightforward issue.
So it is with a complex, living thing like soil. If your plants are consistently coming out weak, sickly, and not very resistant to pests and disease, many things could be the problem.
The Anatomy of Dirt
Soil consists of a host of elements.
- Mineral Components: nourish your plants.
- Water: makes plant and microbe life possible.
- Organic Matter has 2 sources: Plant and animal.
Like broken appliances with recyclable parts, organic matter becomes more beneficial as it’s broken down by microbes and other animal life. Organic matter also encourages healthy levels of moisture.
Microbes work hand-in-hand with organic matter. They’re nature’s sanitation workers and kick decaying matter back into the circle of life to be reused all over again.
Addressing any of those parts of your soil is bound to improve it. So here are some strategies for improving your soil health.
If any soil solution came close to being a cure-all, it’s taking up composting. Fed soil is healthy soil. I mean, think about it.
Pets that get fed are healthy. Your dirt won’t be picky about its diet. Just take your kitchen and yard waste, such as leaves, grass clippings, etc., and add them to the soil around your plant.
You can be as basic as using eggshells and coffee grounds. Or you can take it as far as building a composter.
If you’d like a more complex approach, we can discuss:
Green and Brown Compost
Not all plant-based composts are created equal. You’re trying to get a balanced mix of “green” and “brown.”
Greens are the heaters. They’re rich in nitrogen and protein, and the microbes in a pile thrive on them, creating heat.
Green compost includes:
- Coffee grounds, tea bags
- Perennial/Annual trimmings
- Grass clippings
- Vegetable/fruit scraps
- Weeds that haven’t gone to seed
Brown compost consists of woody and dry plant material. As the name suggests, they tend to turn brown.
This category is populated by:
- Pine needles
- Fall leaves
- Cotton fabric
- Corrugated cardboard
- Corn stalks
- Dryer lint
Your ratio of green to brown aims to manage the “heat” in the compost. If there’s too little heat, then your compost is like a monument. It’ll be there forever.
If it gets too hot, then it could stink, and in extra-special cases, combust. But that’s usually an outcome reserved for manure.
Adding green compost will heat things. Stinking compost calls for cooling down with some browns.
Timing is Everything
There are good times and best times to start composting. The best time is Autumn.
Besides the abundance of material to use like fallen leaves and fruits and vegetable matter, laying them down at this time of year will make them available first thing in Spring.
There’s a whole world of activity we don’t get to see when winter fades away and creatures under the ground stretch and yawn and get to work.
The compost that’s been sitting all winter is the big breakfast they’ll be looking for.
Use Aged Manure
The most sought-after compost is animal droppings. And manure is indeed worth its weight in gold in the sphere of gardening. But try to resist the urge to just take dung straight from the pasture to the garden.
First of all, fresh manure gets hot. How hot? Farmers have to be careful that piles of animal products don’t spontaneously combust into flames.
It happens, okay? So your plants, among other things, are vulnerable to getting burned by poo that’s hot off the press.
Aging your manure is an intelligent step, but it requires planning. Give the droppings months to a year to age.
The benefits will be worth it: an all-around boost in organic matter, nutrients, and a healthy microbe population.
Manure from the following animals are suitable for the garden:
- Chicken: Very high nitrogen content.
- Horse: Plentiful but may also contain seeds that you don’t want growing in your garden.
- Cow: Very balanced and beneficial. Low heat, but also lower nitrogen.
- Goat/Sheep: Drier, lower stink-factor, and the pelleted form make application easy.
- Rabbit: Lowest heat of them all. Considered “cold” manure.
Regardless of which form of black gold you use, the most crucial part is making sure that the animal did not consume any herbicide or pesticide.
This is a surefire way to poison your garden for years to come. It’s similar to radioactive material: Once it’s there, it’s there to stay.
Much Ado About Mulch
Mulch is easy to overlook because of how simple it seems. The act of mulching your garden will:
- Lock in vital moisture
- Shield your plants from excess heat
- Prevent unwanted weed growth
- Provide more organic material when the compost naturally breaks down
Grow Cover Crops
Open patches of uncultivated ground are trouble waiting to happen. Bald dirt will harden and dry up under the sun.
It will also lose nutrients under heavy rain and exposure. Cover crops will be holding everything in place with roots and shelter.
Cover crops can also do some hard work for you if you’re patient. Over time they will break up and aerate hard soil.
Crops with broad, leafy greens are your best bet. These include:
- Rye Grass
That’s right. Your choice of a cover crop can provide some extra food on the side.
Even if you choose a crop you don’t plan on eating when the cover crop has served its purpose, all you have to do is turn it over under the soil, where it will function as green manure.
Use Raised Beds
Some soil just has too many issues to fix. Too much lead. Too little this or that. Your most affordable option is using raised beds.
You have total control over what goes inside those wooden boxes, so the soil can be just as good as you want it to be.
They also lend a nice and spiffy aesthetic to the garden that you can’t get any other way. They also benefit from compost when it’s done properly.
Hire Some Earthworms
This belongs right next to compost in terms of value. Where earthworms go, excellent soil follows.
They gobble up your compost and minimize its visibility. Their digestive tract turns it all into soil-enriching castings, and their worm traffic aerates your garden and improves drainage.
Compost alone will encourage the presence of earthworms since you’re throwing their food in the soil. You can expedite their arrival by growing or farming worms in a separate compost bin.
You do have the option of purchasing worm castings like any other fertilizer, but it’s costly. A little patience goes a long way towards raising your worms and producing your castings.
Get a Soil Test
This may sound intimidating, but it’s a massive step in the right direction. You can take the right medicine when you know what kind of sickness you have.
Similarly, you can give your soil what it needs when you know what’s missing. If you consider using artificial nutrients, get the facts about natural vs. synthetic.
Once you know the state of your soil, you can make amendments as follows:
- Low Nitrogen: Use blood meal, fish emulsion, or legume cover crops.
- Low Potassium: Add wood ash or composted banana peels.
- Low Calcium: Add gypsum, lime, or clam and oyster shells.
- Low Phosphorus: Add rock phosphate (long-term fix) and bone meal (short-term fix).
Maybe a soil test kit just isn’t “organic” enough. There are a few other things you can do to gauge the health of your garden dirt.
The results are the most accurate when these tests are performed during the Spring growing season. And be sure to test more than one spot of your garden.
Critter Concentration Test: Healthy soil is full of life.
- Dig a hole that is at least 6″ deep.
- Observe the hole interior for 4 minutes.
- Count the number and species of critters that wriggle into view.
If you count anything less than 10, then your soil is low on animal life. A high population of such critters helps manage pests and diseases.
- Look for earthworm droppings (casts) on the surface of damp soil.
- Take up a chunk of soil 6″ deep
- Count the number of worms you find in that chunk.
- Five is an excellent number. Three is good enough.
Avoid Soil Compaction
How well do you think the roots of a plant would push through a brick? Or get water? That’s what a plant is up against when growing in compacted soil.
Some soil types, like clay, become compacted with no effort at all. The weight of winter snow and rain is enough to pack it down.
The better soils can become compacted under the weight of our love and devotion. Do you love being in the garden? Well, walking on soil causes compaction.
So watch your step. Don’t tread anywhere that you don’t have to.
Brian and Darren Hefty discuss ways to reduce soil compaction in fields:
Practice Crop Rotation
Ever notice how Midwestern commercial farmers have to treat the soil so heavily with boosted fertilizers?
The same soil is used, again and again, year after year. It sucks the life out of the earth hard and fast.
The average gardener doesn’t put such a burden on the earth, but gardening the same earth patches repeatedly will weaken them and wear them down.
The answer is rotating the location of our crops.
A good rule of thumb is not planting the same crops in the same place for 3 years. If you raised crops behind the shed this year, don’t have those crops growing behind the shed for 3 years.
An added benefit of crop rotation is the reduction of plant diseases and parasites. You’re bringing them their food by planting in the same place every year.
Potatoes are a prime example of this. Try it sometime. You’ll see the pests and diseases ramp up every year.
Keeping your crops on the move will keep their problems from putting down roots of their own.
Put Pulled Weeds Right Back
You read that correctly. The weeds that were a pest before you yanked them up might become a gardening tool.
Unless it’s one of those weeds that grow just by touching dirt, the weeds will become organic material that breaks down and nourishes the soil.
Depending on the population of weeds, they might even serve as a light mulch.
Recycle Your Perennials
Closely related to the above tip, if you have a landscape garden, hedges, timber, or fruit trees, you have a ton of valuable material to add to your garden soil.
All those trimmings and cuttings and prunings can be recycled into the ground with the vegetables.
True, some of it may call for chipping. Adding whole dead branches won’t do.
As you’ve read, keeping your soil in good health isn’t rocket science. It’s more like a set of consistent habits.
Modern consumer culture encourages people to remain in a state of taking. Keeping your soil healthy means cultivating a mindset of taking and giving back.
- Compost: By all means, find ways of making composting part of your gardening. If you do only one thing in this article, make it composting. Even if you can’t afford a compost bin, putting organic material in the ground will make a difference.
- Earthworms: They do so much work for you as long as they are fed. They enrich your soil just by being there, and their tunneling improves soil aeration and drainage.
- Mulch: Using mulch will go a long way in keeping your soil productive. Its double-use as organic material months later is worth the effort.
- Compaction: No matter how much you love working in your garden, avoid treading on the soil too much. Soil compaction is easier to prevent than correct.
- Rotation: Rotating your crops will prevent so many headaches with pests and disease. Don’t forget that it can be a strategy to enrich the soil if done correctly.
- Soil Tests: Don’t be shy about testing your soil. Knowing what your dirt needs will save you wasted time and money.
Take care to improve soil health, and your dirt will take care of you and your plants.