No one can argue that healthy soil equals a better yard and a better producing garden. Not only does healthy soil equal a better producing garden but one that does so with less effort.
The question becomes how do we get healthy soil? Even if you chose to follow some, but not all, of these recommendations you are sure to have the soil, your garden, and even the microorganisms living there thanking you.
Better Soil – How to Improve the Soil in your Garden
1. Have Your Soil Well Drained
Yes. Have your soil well drained. That’s what I said.
I can hear you now, “Um, but how do control that?”
You start by learning where your soil stands right now. First, dig a hole that is one foot deep by one foot wide. Then fill the hole with water. Once the water has drained completely put a ruler in it and fill it up with water again.
After fifteen minutes, measure the water and multiply by four. If you get less than an inch drained in an hour you have poorly draining soil. Ideally, you would like to see your soil drain between one and six inches in an hour. If it drains more than that, the soil is dry and droughty.
You can accept the soil the way that it is, and just chose plants based on that soil type.
However, if you want to fix soil that is slow-draining, then create raised garden beds with a lot of added topsoil. Pretty flower beds can double as catch basins for rain as well.
For more information on this, I highly recommend looking at Rodale Institute’s information on the topic.
2. Add Compost
Compost has so many benefits to the soil. It will help with your drainage problems no matter what end of the spectrum you are on because it is improving the structure of the soil.
For the gardener more specifically adding compost to the mix means that your plants will grow stronger, longer roots. This means that they are able to fully maximize their potential since they are not losing out on nutrients due to smaller roots.
Another thing to add is that, while not a fertilizer, compost does have some nutrients in it that will benefit the soil and the garden. If you are making your own, you might have a little bit more knowledge about what nutrients that compost contains. For example, if you added washed and crushed egg shells to your compost, you know it has some calcium in it.
In addition, fertilizers do not have the microorganisms living in it that compost does. These microorganisms help aggregate the soil and can possibly reduce plant disease.
Here is more information on how to start the compost.
3. Think Beyond Composting
If you really want to get into a good complex ecosystem where the soil is the heart of it all, check out some of Joel Salatin’s stuff.
Although I don’t think I could ever word it as well as he does, here is the gist of it: His cows eat the grass and go to the restroom. In a couple of days, he moves the cows to another part of the pasture and the chickens move in. The chickens scratch at the remains and pull out their dinners (the larvae and bugs) and they also leave their remains. After they get done, they move to the area where the cows had been moved to and the cows move to a third area. Then the first spot brings in the pigs. The pigs use their snouts to push the remains
When they are done, they move to the area where the cows had been moved to and the cows move to a third area. Then the pigs are allocated to the first spot. The pigs use their snouts to push the remains into the ground. All of this benefits each animal and benefits the soil.
I am not saying you need to go to the extent that Joel does, but using some chicken feces is beneficial to your soil. As a matter of fact, so long as the animal is a herbivore, you can use their feces to help your soil grow strong.
Where ever you keep your chickens in the winter, keep their manure contained as well. Add this to your spring garden about three weeks before you start planting. Doing so will help if any winter rain has caused leaching.
Side note: If the chickens are small you can also leave them in your garden. They will eat the bad bugs right off the fruit or vegetables and not even mess with your plants; however, when they grow big you must move them!
4. Plant a Cover Crop
A cover crop can be started as soon as your summer or fall gardening is over. This garden should include grains, grasses, and legumes that can be tilled over in the spring. The goal of having a cover crop is to reduce soil compaction and prevent erosion. It also allows for better air and water penetration.
Naturally, when you till the cover crop into the soil in the spring, it acts just as compost does. Only, it happens faster since it is going directly into the earth versus being caught in a bin for a period of several months to a year.
5. Get Your Soil Tested
This is something I remember being taught in the fourth grade when we went on a field trip. We went to the state park that was about forty-five minutes from our school. They showed us around the park and then taught us about soil testing towards the end. They gave us a tube to put soil into, and a piece of paper that told us who to take our soil to.
This is what you want to know from your test: the readings for soil pH, phosphate, potassium, and magnesium levels.
The soil pH was the one thing my park ranger talked about. For many vegetables, they like higher pH soil but for the most part, you want your pH to be as close to neutral as possible. That range lies somewhere in between six point five and six point eight.
If it is too high or too low, soil nutrients become chemically bonded to the soil particles (essentially it focuses on taking care of its own needs) and therefore cannot help the plants.
Thankfully, you can now do soil testing at home using kits like this and be able to know just what your soil needs in a matter of a couple of hours. If you would rather have soil testing done by a lab, there are organizations out there to help you as well.
6. Figure Out What Your Soil Is
Your soil is going to be one of three things: coarse, medium, or fine. The goal is to have medium soil. Finding this out doesn’t require a test but merely grabbing a handful of the soil and putting it in a jar.
In case I haven’t stated this, your soil is made up of three things. The first one is clay, the smallest particles. The second one is sand. Sand makes up the largest of the soil particles. The last thing that makes up your soil is silt. This medium size part of the soil is made up of rock and mineral particles.
The combination of these three things is called loam.
To determine your loam you need to:
- Grab that clean jar I was just talking about and fill it about half full of soil.
- Fill the rest of the jar almost to the top with water, leaving room for shaking.
- Put the lid on and shake for several minutes.
- Walk away. For several hours. Don’t peak. Don’t panic! It’s settling into the different categories of soil.
Here’s what is happening: Your bottom layer is the sand, the second layer is the silt particles and on top are the clay particles.
The color of the soil tells us what’s going on underneath – light colors usually have less organic content than dark soil and dark soil warms faster in the spring. By now we should be adding enough stuff to the soil to all have dark soil, correct?
If your jar test is twenty percent clay, forty percent silt, and forty percent sand = You have reached loam, congratulations!
- Thirty percent clay, sixty percent silt, and ten percent sand = Silty Clay Loam
- Fifteen percent clay, twenty percent silt, sixty-five percent sand = Sandy Loam
- Fifteen percent clay, sixty-five percent silt, and twenty percent sand = Silty Loam
7. Use Mulch
I must admit, I have never been fond of the mulch most people use. I find it to be very unattractive and am a person who likes to walk around barefoot. That mulch hurts!
That being said, I understand the many benefits of using mulch and now understand that you don’t have to use the wood clipping stuff. Letting your grass grow tall and cutting it, then letting the trimmings dry out and laying it over the area of soil that is concerning you, will work well without hurting barefoot homesteaders.
Types of mulch many people do not consider when thinking about their soil, is ground up cardboard and newspaper.
Doing this allows the temperature underneath to be more stabilized in extreme conditions. Likewise, the microorganisms and earth worms can eat away at the mulch and it still is natural for everyone involved.
8. Avoid Compacting the Soil
When the ground is wet and you walk on it, the ground is compacted and has less breathing room. By creating permanent walk spaces you are reducing the risk of the soil getting worse simply because you needed to check on your strawberries after an ice storm.
Added benefit? It gives you a fun craft to do one day.
9. Get Rid of the Archenemies
I’m sorry but I had to go there. You know the weeds are sucking up the nutrients that your produce desperately needs. Take the time as often as you can, grab as many people as you can and get those suckers out of there.
Last but not Least…
Understand that your soil didn’t get this way overnight, nor will it be fixed overnight. Continue to work hard and know that there may not be an end game, instead, a journey that always takes us on new paths of understanding.
May your garden grow rich and strong and your soil be full of beneficial critters, pHs, and manure!