Three Easy Steps to Improve Garden Soil
Improve Your Garden Soil
The better the soil, the healthier the plants. And the healthier the vegetables, fruits, and herbs you grow in your home garden, the healthier you'll be because the plants are likely to contain more nutrients. Organic gardening offers the average homeowner the opportunity to grow delicious vegetables, herbs, and fruits in the garden and enjoy almost year-round produce (if you learn how to can, dry, and freeze fresh produce properly). But, the true secret of organic gardening success is the soil. Taking time to build up the soil using organic gardening methods saves time later. You will have fewer problems from pests and diseases because your plants will be healthier and stronger. Here are three easy steps you can take to build rich, healthy organic gardening soil.
Know Before You Grow
Before talking about what to do to improve your garden soil, let's first make sure that you actually need to improve your soil. Every garden benefits from some soil amendments, such as compost; however, some soils present more problems than others.
Understand Soil Composition
Gardeners classify soils as sandy, clay or loam, with loam being the optimal. The name given to soil types typically refer to the size of the particles; sand has large particles, clay smaller ones. The large particles in sand allow water to drain quickly, but along with water goes many of the nutrients your plant needs to thrive. Clay has the smallest size particles, but these tend to hold water in and can create soggy conditions that are also harmful. The middle ground or optimal soil type is loam. A rich, loamy soil drains well, provide optimal nutrients and root support, and offers ideal growing conditions.
Know Your Soil
Before adding any amendments, get to know your garden soil. You can use the mayonnaise jar test if you're not sure what sand or clay looks like. Take a clean, empty mayonnaise jar or jelly jar and place about 1/3 cup of soil in the bottom. Add water to about an inch from the top and screw the lid on tightly. Shake the jar, then wait a minute. The particles that settle first are sand. Put a mark on the side of the jar to where the sand settles. Then let the jar sit on the counter for a day or two and see how long the rest of the particles take to settle. Clay takes the longest. Whatever you have the most of in the jar you probably have the most of out in your garden.
Soil pH is another important component of soil improvements, and it can vary a lot from garden to garden or place to place. The pH refers to how acidic (low number) or alkaline (high number) the soil tends to be. Most vegetable crops prefer a soil pH from around 6.0 to 6.8, but anything slightly above or below can work just fine. Purchase a soil pH test kit from your local garden center and test the pH of the soil where you wish to grow vegetables. It's helpful to know what you're working with before you start gardening.
An Example from My Garden
Few soils are precisely one thing or the other. In my own zone 6b garden near the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I have pockets of clay and sand, with mostly Virginia red clay. The land slopes and rolls down to a creek, and the areas near the creek are mostly sand. Our farm was used for growing tobacco in the 19th century and hay and cattle in the early 20th century before turning it to its current timber production and our personal vegetable garden and fruit orchard. The solution for us was to amend the soil near the fruit orchard, specifically around the trees; and in the vegetable garden, build raised beds so that we could control the soil quality within the raised beds.
I had the soil tested at a professional lab for pH and for organic matter in the soil. The results were so bad that the lab called and wanted to know where the soil came from - they had never seen such acidic soil devoid almost entirely of organic material. Tobacco production and much later, loblolly pines, had created a highly acidic mess without much organic material.
Our solution for the vegetables was raised beds into which we dumped cow manure gladly donated by a local farmer and allowed to compost in place, homemade compost from our compost pile, soil, peat moss, and some compost purchased from the local paper mill which sells a compost made from the scraps left from the paper industry. This works well, with a noticeable improvement in root crops and green leafy vegetables.
For the fruit trees, we amended each planting hole with a rich layer of organic compost before planting the trees. Each year, we top dress a 2 to 4 inch layer or compost under the drip line of the trees. The drip line is where the branches extend out; if you draw an imaginary circle on the ground, tracing the arc of the branches, that's about where the roots are, and that's why we place compost there. Rainwater naturally drips the compost down into the soil. We also place a thick layer of mulch on top of that to retain water.
The flower garden here is my hobby and it is on a steep slope, which adds to the challenge of keeping nutrients in the soil. I amended the soil with horse manure, again donated from a local Arabian horse breeder who regularly advertises free manure in the newspaper (just bring your truck and pick it up) for gardeners. On top of this I used a natural soil microbe activator from Gardens Alive. It is a powdered product that is added to the soil and returns healthy microbes into the soil to encourage the natural composting of leaf material. A top dressing of wood chip mulch each year helps reduce water needs and keeps the soil in place (along with thickly planted perennials such as daylilies and others.)
Three Easy Steps to Improving Garden Soil
If you're just getting started gardening, use these three easy steps to improving your garden soil.
- Compost: If you've never composted before and you think it's hard to do, think again. All you need is an old garbage can or a few bricks to map out an area for your pile. Composting is nature's way of recycling and breaking down organic material back into the soil. You can add any plant material to the pile as long as it is disease-free. Compost autumn leaves, grass clippings, potato and carrot peels, apple cores, and any fruit or vegetable scraps. I also rinse out egg shells and add these to the pile, and have added in the past coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, and used tea bags. Do not add meat bones or scraps of any kind (it attracts vermin such as rats and other creatures and can cause odor issues, among other things). Rain will help your pile compost. After a few months, dig into the pile; the bottom layers that looks like crumbly chocolate cake are what your plants need. The stuff at the bottom that looks like a crumbled up devil's food cake is compost. That is what you add to the soil.
- Compost in place: Lasagna gardening or lasagna composting is a method of composting in place. I use this in the raised beds during the winter months and it is a great time (and labor) saver. Dig down into the soil a few inches and place a thin layer of newspaper. Layer your vegetable scraps on the newspaper, allow it to get wet or wet it down with the hose, add a layer of soil, and then repeat. You're building up layers that over the course of several weeks or months will naturally break down into soil. It's best to use this technique in the fall to allow months to pass by until spring planting, and stop using this method at least a month before you intend to plant your garden.
- Add aged cow or horse manure: Manure is great for the soil. Many horse stables are glad to get rid of their manure to home gardeners. Look in your newspaper for ads offering manure for pick up, or call some stables and ask. Cow manure can be difficult to find for free because many farmers actually sell it to the agricultural companies, who in turn let it sit, bag it up, and sell it back to you for higher prices. You can certainly buy cow manure and it is a good investment for the garden. Whenever you use manure, let it age for a while and break down. Fresh manure is high in nitrogen and too "hot" for the soil. It can damage garden plants. Let it rot, and when it too looks kind of crumbly and dry, add it to the garden soil, mixing it in well. To be safe let a few weeks pass by before adding your plants. Allowing the manure to compost down may also prevent any potential disease-causing pathogens from infecting the soil. Time and nature can take care of them if you just let the manure compost down a bit before planting your garden.
What About Fancy Organic Fertilizers?
Garden catalogs, garden centers and home stores offer row after row of fancy packaged fertilizers on the shelves. Should you buy any of them? Organic and conventional fertilizers serve different purposes, but neither can improve the overall soil quality if you start with poor soil. Take the time now build up your soil using healthy, natural methods such as composting, composting in place, and adding manure. These three easy steps to improving soil naturally not only add nutrients, they improve the soil structure and add microbes back into the soil. Organic and conventional fertilizers can't do that; they add macro nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potash to the soil, but they cannot do what nature does best. Unless you have a specific problem such as missing micro nutrients or other special circumstances revealed through a professional soil laboratory test, stick with the free, natural methods of composting. Eggshells, banana peels and coffee grounds can do wonders for your garden.