If the soil in your garden is less than perfect, it's time to take action. Read on to find out how to make your garden soil healthy and fertile. With these natural and easy steps, you will have healthy, fertile, high-quality soil in no time!
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Healthy, Fertile Soil is your Biggest Garden Asset
Your soil is your most important asset when you grow a garden. It seems kind of boring. It’s just dirt. We walk all over it. It gets dug up and thrown around. It doesn’t always get the love it deserves. But without good soil, your garden harvest may be disappointing. Sure, you can add fertilizers and hope your plants grow, but good soil is what will give your plants everything they need to be healthy and productive.
When I first started my garden, I learned a lot from other people, books and the internet. At that time, I learned that you had to till your soil at least once a year. You could till it in the spring and fall. And you could even till it to keep the weeds down. I learned that I should fertilize my plants with a balanced fertilizer. Something like a 10-10-10 or 12-12-12, meaning the fertilizer would have 10 or 12 parts each of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. I learned I should use Epsom salts and sand and mix fertilizer in when I planted each seedling. I learned that I should sprinkle my plants with poisonous dusts to keep the bugs away.
And then I learned that this was ALL wrong for me. Now, these methods work. I’m not saying that you won’t get a good harvest. And you will certainly kill ALL the bugs using poisonous dusts on your plants. But…. Is that what you want your garden to be? A pest and weed-killing machine that creates perfect tomatoes that are full of chemicals? Not for me!
If you’re anything like me, you are probably searching for natural alternatives to disgusting chemicals and the tricks that you can find all over the internet. You probably want a beautiful garden that produces healthy food that’s full of vitamins, minerals and nutrition and does not contain chemicals or anything fake.
Guess what? This is possible! Stop looking for quick fixes and start thinking about your long-term health. I mean, your soil’s long-term health. Oh wait, they are the same thing… See? You wouldn’t put something in your soil that wouldn’t be healthy for you! And please, please stop using weed killers and pesticides in your garden.
Let’s start from the ground up. If you just want to find out how to get healthy and fertile garden soil without knowing the why behind it, click here to jump to the how.
A Breakdown of What is in Your Garden Soil
Let’s talk about what soil is so we can understand why it’s so important to keep it healthy. I am going to give you a quick synopsis and not get too in-depth. But if you want to know more, check out this in-depth document from the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
Soil is made up of solids consisting of clay, sand, stone and silt. It also includes organic matter which is made up of anything that originated from living organisms and is mostly carbon. There are soil biota (living things in the soil) that eat the organic matter. Finally, there is air and water in the soil.
What lives in the soil?
This is my favorite part of the soil. There is so much life in soil. Some of it is visible and some is not. This is the piece of the puzzle that really started making me think about soil health. If there are living organisms in soil, then they can die. And if they are necessary for healthy soil, then we want to keep them alive so that we can grow healthier food for our bodies.
One of the living things in the soil that I think most of us are familiar with are the earthworms. When I dig into my soil and see these guys, I know that I am doing something right. They are like natural mini-tillers. They burrow through the soil and eat the organic materials. Then they excrete their castings which feed the soil. These guys do a lot of work in our soil! To learn more about earthworms, take a look at this website.
Arthropods are things like spiders, centipedes and millipedes, mites, ants, beetles and other insects. These guys help break up larger organic material, expose the organic matter for the microbes and mix up the soil materials. To learn more about arthropods, take a look at this article.
Bacteria and Fungi
Bacteria and fungi help break down organic material so it is easier for the other living organisms to digest. To learn more about bacteria, here's an extensive article.
Protozoa are one-celled organisms “that move about in the thin films of water that can be found on the surfaces of most of the soil solids.” Protozoa can consume bacteria and different types of cells. To learn more about protozoa, check here.
Nematodes are multicellular animals. Like protozoa, they live in the thin water films on soil. Nematodes consume protozoa, bacteria, fungi and other nematodes. To learn more about nematodes, click here.
All of these living things are really important to having healthy soil. They help to break down the organic material so that your plants can absorb the nutrients found there. Your plants use these nutrients to grow and produce healthy food for you and your family.
Importance of Soil Health and Soil Fertility in your Garden
Having healthy garden soil has so many benefits. You will find that you have less work to do when your soil is healthy and fertile. Here are just a few of the benefits of building your soil so that it is healthy and fertile.
Plants are able to take up more nutrients from healthy soil. You will find that your vegetable garden has healthier and more flavorful produce when your soil is healthy.
You won't have to water as often. The soil will hold moisture better but won't become soggy. It will drain when there's too much water, but the nutrients and topsoil will not wash away.
With healthier soil and healthier plants, you will have less harmful insects AND you will attract more beneficial insects. Find out some other ways to attract beneficial insects here.
This is probably one of my favorite benefits of healthy soil. Having less weeds equals less work for you. And weeds won't be competing with your vegetables, so they will grow bigger and better!
How do you know if you have healthy soil?
There are some common ways to see if your soil is healthy without having to do a true soil test. That can come later. These are just some things you can observe as you are out in your garden.
Soil tilth is the properties the soil has. Good soil tilth refers to soil that is fluffy, breaks apart easily, dark brown, well structured with no big clumps.
Another way to tell the health of your soil is to check the drainage. When it rains, does water pool or run off? These are things you do NOT want. You want your soil to be able to take in and store or drain the water.
Related to soil drainage, soil moisture can be measured by how long your soil holds onto the water after a rain or watering. You don’t want your soil too moist, of course, but you do want it to be spongy.
If your soil is compacted, the minerals have been pushed together and not enough air and water is getting into the soil. If your soil is compacted, roots will have trouble growing. Soil compaction can also cause oxygen deficiency.
You want to have a sufficient amount of nutrients but not too much. A lot of times, if you use fertilizer, especially chemical fertilizer, you can take it too far. You might think if a little fertilizer is good, then maybe more is better. That is definitely not the case when it comes to any fertilizer, but especially chemical fertilizers. When overused, the excess chemical fertilizer will run off and head into the water supplies surrounding you. This can disrupt aquatic life. Chemicals can even end up in drinking water!
We want lots of living organisms in our healthy soil. We can’t see a lot of these little guys with our naked eyes, but we can get a good idea of how it’s going by looking for earthworms, spiders, ants and other insects. I know it can be hard not to squash that big spider crawling through your garden, but just think about how it is helping you and your soil’s health.
Another thing that you can look at to determine your soil’s health is how well your plants are growing. Observe the color and the size. Notice if there are diseases. Do your plants seem healthy and vigorous? This can be a good indication of your soil’s health.
How to get Healthy and Fertile Soil in Your Garden
This is number one. I used to think that tilling was a necessary step. The deeper my tiller went, the better I thought my soil would be. I had the worst gardens for those years that I tilled. Oh, and the weeds? Yeah. They were abundant.
The perception is that when you till, you are “fluffing” up the soil and letting the air into it. Well, it sure looks fluffier and pretty right after being tilled. But you are destroying all of the beneficial fungal networks that have been created over time. You are killing the worms who are naturally tilling the soil for you, just better than we could ever do it. You are disturbing the millions of beneficial bacteria that are creating a beautiful place for your plants to call home. And don’t forget this big one – you are bringing all the weed seeds to the surface so they will now receive enough light to germinate.
So, now you’re thinking, “Fine. I will stop tilling, but what am I supposed to do instead?” There are different approaches that you can take to a no-till garden. I have tried a couple of different things myself with different levels of success. To learn more about different methods of no-till gardening, check out this post.
Here’s a quick overview of some different no-till methods:
- Deep mulch: this is where you create a deep layer of mulch out of straw, hay or leaves to keep the soil covered and kill off any weeds. As your mulch breaks down, it feeds the soil. Your soil stays protected and moist. Here's my very favorite book about the deep mulch method by Ruth Stout. You can also read more about my deep mulch experience here.
- Sheet mulch: this method (also known as lasagna gardening) uses layers to first kill off the weeds and grass and then build the soil. It starts with a layer of cardboard or newspaper and then things like leaves, straw, wood chips, compost or hay are added to build the soil. I learned a lot about this method as well as other tips for building soil from this ebook over at the Learning and Yearning website.
- Hugelkultur Beds: Hugelkultur is a German word that means mound culture or hill culture. This method is said to have been used by the Germans and Eastern European societies. In this method, a shallow trench is dug and logs are placed in it. Then compost, leaves, straw, hay and anything else that will break down is added. As the logs break down, they add nutrients and hold moisture.
- Mulching: Using a thin layer of compost, rotted manure or other mulch without tilling it into the soil will protect your soil. The soil structure will be built up as worms, bacteria and fungi do their job of incorporating the organic material into the soil. As weeds pop up, you can pull them or hoe them out. If you’re interested in this method, check out any book by Charles Dowding.
Keep your soil covered
This goes along with the no-till gardening ideas. Whether you are going to go full-on deep mulch or just add a couple inches of straw or compost once your plants are in the ground, keep your soil covered. Having your soil covered will help to keep moisture in the ground. It protects your soil from erosion. And, most importantly to those with little time or patience, it keeps the weeds down!
You can use hay, straw, wood chips, compost or leaves for mulch. To learn more about the different types of mulches and what’s best for your garden, take a look at this post all about mulch.
Another way to keep soil covered is by planting cover crops. Cover crops not only help with soil erosion, they also help with soil structure through sending their roots deep into the earth. There are many other benefits to cover crops, including adding nitrogen to the soil and acting as a green manure when they die or are killed off.
There are so many options for what you can plant as a cover crop. What you choose will depend on what your goal is with the cover crop as well as where you live. Some examples of cover crops include wheat, rye, vetch, clovers, legumes and even radish.
Don’t Disturb Your Soil
The more you walk on your soil, drive your tractor over your garden or push your wheelbarrow through, the more compacted your soil will become. This happens when soil particles are pressed together and pore space between particles is reduced.
The negative impacts of soil compaction in your garden are that water is not readily absorbed or held in the soil. You can avoid this by creating paths around your beds or gardening in raised beds.
Add Organic Matter to Your Soil
Start making compost right away. Learn the basics of making compost in this post. If you can’t make enough compost to get an inch or two over your garden or beds, you can always order it in bulk from a local source. If you don’t need as much, you can buy bagged compost at a nursery or local store. Usually, buying in bulk will save money, though.
Keeping Soil Healthy and Fertile
If you are starting from scratch, it may take a few years to get the soil you want. As you continue to follow the above steps for getting healthy soil, you will notice a difference in the vigor and health of your plants. You should have more beneficial insects arriving in your garden as your plants become healthier.
I am personally still working on getting and keeping healthy soil. It takes patience and some planning. For instance, I have a big garden planted directly in the ground. It is not separated into beds, and I have noticed that by my walking all over it all the time, I have compacted my soil more than is necessary. This spring, I am going to stake out beds and make paths in between to take care of that.
There is definitely a learning curve in creating the ideal garden. For me, it is a test of patience and perseverance. Each season, I learn something new that I apply to my garden. I like to try different methods, but what I know for sure is that soil health is truly the key to a successful garden.
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