Garden productivity starts and ends with the soil. Great soil produces the highest quality, best tasting crops. Poor soil is a key factor in crop failure, disease and insect infestations. The good news is that no one is “stuck where they are.” Soil building is a never ending job, and should be considered the primary job, for gardeners. If you want better soil, here’s how to get there.
1. Keep It Growing
The most important rule in soil building is to never let the land “fallow” or in other words, sit empty. Constant production is what keeps the soil aerated, as well as providing a steady supply of raw organic material for beneficial microbes and other helpful soil organisms to feed on.
2. Crop Rotation
As the seasons roll on, rotating crops is extremely important no matter the size of the garden. Consider the difference between the deep tap root of a carrot versus the shallow fibrous roots of lettuce, and it makes sense: different plants use the soil in different ways. You can take advantage of this basic knowledge by growing a different botanical family on the same space each time you plant. Try to avoid growing the same family in the same place for three years.
3. Cover Cropping
The extension of both “keep it growing” and “crop rotation” is cover cropping. During winter and between harvest crops, adding a cover crop such as clover, rye, buckwheat, marigolds or field peas, helps to retain valuable soil moisture and nutrients, continues to build soil structure, and provides large quantities of raw material for compost or mulch.
Mulch is primarily used for moisture retention and weed suppression around landscaped areas. Another fantastic benefit is it’s ability to insulate the soil and protect soil building organisms near the surface. Using a three inch layer of organic mulch (pine needles, aged wood chips/bark, straw, shredded paper, etc) in the garden provides all of these benefits plus “sheet composting,” which is an interesting way to describe the addition of trace amounts of rotted mulch into the soil as it degrades.
5. Soil Amendments:
Soil additives will always be part of the gardeners’ soil building program. First among these additives should always be high quality, homemade compost made from your own garden and kitchen waste. It’s easy to spend a fortune buying bagged compost, manure, soil conditioner, peat moss and other wonderful additives. Use these store bought options for tough spots and quick fixes when needed, but understand that you can do a lot for very little out of pocket by consistently following steps 1-4, and adding homemade compost into the mix.
6. Fertility Check
A simple soil test (taken by you and tested by your county Extension Service lab) will help you know where you stand on soil nutrient levels. When you receive the results, you will also receive a recommendation for fertilizer treatment based on your stated use for the plot (lawn, vegetable garden, blueberry bushes, etc.) This is a scientific process that accounts for your current conditions and also what your proposed crop needs to flourish. Testing the soil yearly will give you a track record from your starting point, to show how your ongoing processes have improved the land.
7. pH Check
Also included in the soil test is pH, or soil acidity results. Soil acidity effects how efficiently plants uptake nutrients from the soil. There may be plenty of nitrogen in the soil, but if it is too acidic your plants may still look off color and “wimpy.” The fix may be adding lime to bring up the pH into the correct range for the crop in question. Base your decisions to add lime, iron, sulphur or fertilizers, on accurate soil test results.
8. Till or No-Till
No-till gardening and farming have become increasingly popular in recent years because of the benefits to the soil. The natural layering of soil structure is good for plants, and the only way to get it is by allowing natural processes to proceed uninterrupted. On the other hand, clean tillage greatly reduces weed competition which is helpful for slow-growing and shallowly rooted crops. The decision to till or not is based on broader issues including personal preference. If it sounds like something you’d like to try, no-till may be something that works well in your garden.