Soil is one of a gardener’s most important resources, and preserving its health and vitality one of our most crucial responsibilities. Nourish the soil sustainably and you’ll be rewarded with healthier plants and bountiful harvests for years to come.
I was reading National Geographic the other day, and came across an article on soil called “Our Good Earth.” The article discusses the problems facing soils all over the planet, and made me realize just how precious healthy soil really is. We’re losing topsoil rapidly as we consume more and more land to house and feed the ballooning human population. It can take nature over a thousand years to produce just one inch of soil, but erosion, compaction, and contamination can wipe it away much faster. This precious resource, the means to sustain and feed us and the entire planet, is often just treated like dirt. It’s time that changed. And it can start in your very own backyard.
Taking care of the soil not only preserves nature for the long haul, it has many short-term benefits to the gardener. Maintaining healthy, biologically active soil leads to healthier plants that are less susceptible to pests and disease, increased yields, and less runoff and wasted water.
Soil is alive. It contains countless varieties of microbes, fungi, and bacteria that help make minerals and chemicals available to plants as food. Organic matter is essential to maintaining soil life and therefore in making it fertile for plants, which is why composting and mulching are so important. Preparing the soil without disturbing it too much is also essential to building and maintaining healthy soil.
In order to prepare your soil for gardening, you must first know your soil. It helps to know the texture of your soil to find out how it retains water. Clay soils have flat particles and are often hard with poor drainage, but retain water better than sandy soil, which drains very quickly and is made up of round particles. Loamy soil is a mix of the two, with both decent drainage and water retention. Mixing sand into clay soil or clay into sandy soil can help balance it, and so can adding compost and other organic matter.
It’s wise to do a soil test in order to determine the makeup of your soil and also figure out what minerals and nutrients it lacks so you can add sources of them in the right quantities. Often your county’s extension office will offer soil tests. If your soil test indicates high levels of a toxin like lead or serious deficiencies, you can always build raised garden beds or use containers for gardening instead.
Maintaining and managing your soil sustainably and organically will not only help keep your garden growing, it will help nature keep building one of our most precious resources.
Ways of Building Healthy Soil in the Organic Garden
- Compost is broken down organic matter, a very important component to healthy soil. Use compost when preparing garden soil, and recycle your veggie scraps, weeds, and yard waste into compost for next year.
- Mulch can be used to increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, which in turn feeds the microbes which feed the plants. Bare soil erodes and dries out quickly. Avoid this by growing plants close enough together that they’ll nearly touch when mature. Mulch is a protective layer of organic material like straw, rice hulls, or pine needles that you can spread over the soil to help it retain moisture, keep weeds at bay, and prevent erosion.
- Cover crops and green manures can be grown to help maintain the soil structure. Legumes make a great ‘green manure’ crop because they fix nitrogen in the soil for plants to use later. Cover crops are often not grown for food, instead they are tilled or dug into garden beds before planting to add organic matter to the soil.
- Crop rotation is the practice of growing different types of crops in an area each season. Crop rotation is the opposite of monoculture, and helps maintain soil fertility, balance nutrients, and avoid disease and pests. Some families of plants give nutrients to the soil (such as legumes), some take more (like greens and broccoli). Rotating crops according to their families will help your garden and the soil.
- Organic soil amendments can help correct soil deficiencies and balance nutrients. Often, healthy soil has all the necessary nutrients plants need and the only amendment necessary is compost and/or manure. A soil test will help you determine what your soil lacks, and you can use organic sources of the nutrients you need or to adjust the soil’s pH. Some common organic amendments are alfalfa or kelp meal, animal manures such as chicken, sheep, or bat guano, fish meal or fish emulsion, oyster shell, gypsum, and dolomite lime. Keep it organic for the soil’s sake!
- Avoid erosion and compaction with wise garden design by creating plenty of paths and making beds narrow enough to reach across easily. Double dig or till beds only when necessary, such as when establishing a new bed, and don’t step or lean on them once they’re dug. You can often fluff up soil with a garden fork, adding compost and organic material each season without having to re-dig. Avoid driving over soil or keeping anything heavy on it. Water also causes erosion, so use a water wand and low pressure when hand watering, or install a drip irrigation system for minimal impact. Conserving water and maintaining healthy soil often go hand in hand.
Now that you know how to start being a good soil steward, you can start helping nature build healthy soil and reap the benefits in your own garden. If we take care of the earth, the earth takes care of us!
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