Better soil means better growth and a better, healthier garden, and here are some great tips on how to achieve it.
1) Improve Your Soil’s Drainage
I’m really starting with the easy stuff, aren’t I? Don’t despair! Checking and improving the drainage of your soil is probably a lot easier than you think it would be.
Testing your soil’s current drainage capacity isn’t hard as long as you have a little time. To get started, dig a foot-deep (30 cm.) hole that is also one foot on either side. Fill the hole up with water and wait until the water drains out entirely.
Now it’s time to find out about your drainage! Put a ruler in the hole and fill it up again. What you want to measure is how much the water level drops in the course of an hour. You can either wait the full hour or measure after 15 minutes and multiply the result by four.
If your soil drains less than an inch (2.5 cm.) of water in an hour, it can be officially considered poorly draining. If it drains more than six inches (15 cm.), your soil is notably dry. One to six inches of drainage in an hour is the ideal number to shoot for.
If your soil is dry or slow draining, you could just adjust your planting choices to suit your ground. But that’s not your only option! A great way to counteract slow-draining soil is to add topsoil to raised beds. These beds can harbor pretty flowers and also work as catch basins for rain.
If you’d like to learn more about soil drainage, I find that the information provided by the Rodale Institute is very educational.
2) Start Using A Cover Crop
A cover crop is a winter planting you get started on once your main gardening season ends in the summer or fall. The cover crop’s job is to protect your soil by preventing erosion and reducing compaction. A good cover crop will also make it easier for air and water to get into the soil. The sort of plants you’re looking for are grains, legumes, or grasses that can be easily tilled over when the spring returns.
Once you till your cover crop into the soil when the spring starts warming up, it serves a final useful purpose by improving the condition of the soil in a way similar to compost. Your tilled-over crop actually has an advantage over compost since it does not need to be binned for months in advance to prepare it. It starts helping as soon as you till it in.
3) Using Compost
Compost is a tremendously handy tool for any gardener, delivering tons of different benefits for your soil. Compost can help out with any sort of drainage issue. Whether your soil is too dry or too dense, adding compost will improve its structure.
The biggest benefit that compost delivers might be the positive influence it has on the roots of your garden plants. Compost encourages them to grow deeper, stronger roots. Better roots allow your plants to draw the maximum amount of nutrients from the soil. That, in turn, leads to hardier, bigger plants.
Compost is distinguished from other soil additives by its thriving load of beneficial microorganisms. Besides aerating the soil and improving its condition, these little creatures can also discourage the spread of certain forms of plant disease. By adding beneficial microbes to your soil, you are giving your plants the best chance at growing healthily.
Speaking of nutrients, compost is capable of adding some to your soil. Although it doesn’t do that job to the same extent as fertilizer, it does make a positive difference. If you’re making your own compost, you can even adjust the nutrient balance by changing what you add. Egg shells, for instance, are a classic ingredient for adding calcium to your compost. (Remember to wash them and crush them up small before adding them!)
4) Animal Assistance
For in-depth guidance on building a balanced ecosystem where plants and animals provide mutual benefit, my chosen reference is Joel Salatin.
I highly recommend reading his work; it’s both informative and entertaining. To summarize the key parts: Joel starts by feeding his cows on a patch of grass. After a few days, he moves the cows to another pasture and brings his chickens in. The chickens peck nutritious bits out of the cows’ feces (bugs, larvae, undigested seeds) as well as leaving their own feces behind. Next up in the rotation are pigs. They root through everything that’s been left behind and push beneficial nutrients right into the soil, where they’ll do the most good.
Although I wouldn’t say that the lesson here is to go out and get a cow just to improve the quality of your garden soil, Joel’s work on animal-garden interaction has plenty of useful tips. For most gardeners, the biggest and best one will be to look into using chicken manure to fertilize your garden. Any plant-eating animal, in fact, will produce soil-improving feces.
If you keep chickens yourself, collect their manure over the winter. For best results, add this to your garden soil three weeks prior to your first spring plantings. This can correct any deficiencies caused by rain leaching over the winter.
An additional tip: If you have younger, smaller chickens, you can even let them roam free in your garden. The birds will pick unwanted bugs off your plants without damaging them. Just remember, chickens need to be taken out of the garden when they reach full adult size!
5) Soil Testing
I first learned about soil testing on a fourth-grade field trip. The destination was a state park, not too far from my school, where we got a nice well-rounded tour and a lesson on soil testing. As this was aimed at young kids, the lesson focused primarily on the fun part of the job: collecting the soil.
These days, as a grown-up gardener, I’m familiar with all the chemical information that a soil test delivers. These include soil pH and levels of key minerals like potassium, phosphate, and magnesium.
I remember grasping some of the important bits about soil pH even during that fourth-grade lesson. Although there are a few vegetables that prefer soil with a high pH, you want to aim for a neutral level for the overwhelming majority of plants. A healthy pH range is from 6.5 to 6.8.
Both high and low pH can interfere with plant growth. In soil with high or low levels, nutrients will bind to the soil itself and become unavailable to your plants.
It’s now easy to test your own soil with home kits. It takes just a few hours to get an accurate, instructive reading on your soil. If you’d prefer to get your testing handled by an expert, you can learn how to contact appropriate labs through lots of different gardening organizations.
6) Understanding Soil Composition
Every bit of soil in the world falls into three basic categories: fine, medium, or coarse. For a garden, your target is medium soil. You get this by achieving the right balance of soil particles, producing loam. Soil particles are divided according to size – clay, sand, and silt.
It’s easy to figure out how your garden soil breaks down. Just take a clean jar out to your garden and fill it half-full of soil. Fill the rest of the jar with water, leaving a little air so that you can shake it all up. Close the jar tightly and shake it for several minutes. Leave the jar to settle for several hours. Resist the temptation to peek!
What’s happening here is that the different soil particles will rearrange themselves according to size after you shake them up in the water. You should be able to see three clear bands after the jar has settled. Sand comes out on the bottom, then comes silt, and the clay comes to the top.
Comparing the different bands makes it easy to see how your soil is made. The ideal loam for gardening is 40 percent sand, 40 percent silt, and 20 percent clay.
By the way, this same jar test is also a handy way to check the organic content of your soil. The darker the soil, the more organic stuff it has. This is good for feeding plants and also for trapping heat; dark soil warms up faster. If you’ve been composting and taking other steps to improve your soil, you should see some nice dark colors when you do the jar test.
To be completely honest, I’ve always found that other gardeners have more enthusiasm for mulch than I do. I don’t much like the way it looks. I’m also the sort that likes to walk barefoot in my garden, and mulch isn’t fun to walk on!
But when I set aside the parts about mulch I don’t like, I can admit it’s got its benefits. Mulch is great at maintaining stable soil temperatures. Mulch can also feed beneficial creatures (worms and microorganisms) living in your soil.
One major leap forward for me was learning that you can use other materials to mulch, not just those uncomfortable wood chips. My personal mulch of choice is dried-out grass clippings. These are effective and completely comfy to walk on. Other good alternative mulches include shredded newspaper and ground-up cardboard.
8) Don’t Let Your Soil Get Compacted
As noted above, I do love going barefoot around my garden. However, I lay out dedicated walkways so that I don’t have to step on my growing soil any more than necessary. Walking on the soil is especially harmful when it’s wet; this will compact it and reduce its ability to take in air.
9) Do As Much Weeding As You Can Stand
It may not be the fun part of gardening, but removing weeds is absolutely necessary. Weeds are competitors in the race for soil nutrients, so taking them out does your produce a favor. Weed as often as you can. If you’ve got a huge garden and a lot of intrusive plants, you might want to recruit some friends to help you get the interlopers out of there.