I like to write about DIY gardening and general homesteading tips. I hope to provide readers with ideas and inspiration.
Why Is Soil So Important?
Soil—or rather, the fertility of your soil—is the #1 most important thing to consider when undertaking any projects involving live plants or grazing animals. If your soil is not fertile, then plants will not grow (or at least not grow heartily). Whether you are growing some salad greens to save a few dollars at the grocery store or growing fodder mixes to keep your livestock fed through the winter, the fertility of your soil is the key to success.
What Kind of Soil Do I Have?
The kind of soil that you have to work with is a big determining factor in the varieties and amounts of nutrients it contains. To determine what kind of soil you have, take a sample.
How to Take a Soil Sample
- Fill a jar halfway full of the soil you wish to test (from the earth, or a potting mix bag).
- Fill the jar the remainder of the way up to almost full with water.
- Shake the jar vigorously to break up clumps of soil.
- Set the jar somewhere and do not disturb it for at least 12 hours.
- Examine the layers at the bottom of the jar.
You should end up with one of three outcomes upon examining the jar:
If the layer at the very bottom of the jar is considerably larger than the other 2 layers, then you have sandy soil. Sandy soils are okay for growing root vegetables like carrots, or vegetables with tender root systems like peas. However, you will need to keep up on your fertilization and water because sand isn't very good at retaining either.
If the layer on the top of the layers in the jar is the thickest, you have a clay-heavy soil. Clay soils are the exact opposite of sandy soils—they retain water and nutrients too well. Also, they are very dense and make it hard for plant-root growth.
Loamy soil is when all layers in the bottom of the jar are pretty much equal. This is ideal soil to grow anything in. It retains water and nutrients, but also drains well so there is no buildup of either to harm your plants.
Trench Composting to Improve Garden Soil
It doesn't matter what type of soil you've determined that you have. I have a one-word answer to fix it: compost. Compost is broken-down organic matter.
There are lots of ways you can compost, but my favorite method is to compost in place. Lots of people refer to it as trench composting or pit composting.
What Is Trench Composting?
Trench composting is when you dig trenches or pits where you dump organic materials to decompose and the life in the soil breaks it all down and turns it into a thick, dark, nutrient-rich humus. This humus is great for drainage, yet the organic material in it holds water well enough to keep giving your plants exactly what they need as they need it.
How to Trench Compost
Trench composting must be done a season in advance of planting because some of the materials you may choose to compost actually rob the soil of nutrients while breaking down and won't fully benefit your plants until they have broken down. At the end of the composting season though, the trench or pit that you dug will be so much more fertile than what it started as.
Repeat this season after season around your garden or growing patch rotating to a different spot each time and follow up with good crop rotation and heavy mulching of organic materials like sawdust, leaves, and wood chips, and your soil will stay fresh and loose for your plants to grow healthy and strong!
Materials to Compost to Enrich Your Soil
Basically, anything that used to be alive can be composted and falls under one of two categories—green or brown.
Greens: Items rich in nitrogen
- Green leaves
- Fruit and vegetable peelings
- Coffee grounds
- Meats (though not recommended)
Browns: Materials rich in carbon
- Wood chips
- Fallen dried leaves
- Paper towels
- Paper towel and toilet paper rolls
- Natural cloths like cotton or jute
Amending Spent Potting Soils
Potting soils are usually designed to be used to retain water and nutrients for plants. Oftentimes, potting mixes can be bought with fertilizers already in them so you don't really need to worry about it for most of the first season of use.
After each pot has been occupied for the season though, the potting soil will need its nutrients and organic matter replenished to be used again successfully. The solution to this problem, again, is compost.
I like to amend my potted plants with composted leaves and twigs, or leaf mold. Leaf mold is made by raking up piles of dead leaves and twigs and letting them decompose.
It's a slow process, but it can be sped up by raking the leaves into black trash bags or garbage cans and letting the sun beat down on them. This "solar cooking" of the materials speeds up the decomposition.
How to Use Leaf Mold
No matter which method you choose to use to make the leaf mold, make sure the material you are composting gets turned or stirred well once a week and stays evenly moist until it looks and smells like dirt.
After the leaf mold has finished composting, mix it at about a 50/50 ratio into your potting soil.
Once you have planted out your containers filled with the newly revitalized soil, take one last safe measure by mulching around the bottoms of your plants with the leaf mold. It will provide a barrier against water evaporating from your soil and keep breaking down to fertilize your plants.
Enjoy Your Soil
It doesn't matter if you have a balcony garden, a handmade raised bed, or a game-animal feed patch close to your hunting grounds. Knowing your soil and keeping it healthy and full of nutrient-rich organic matter is the key to repeated successful growing seasons.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Michael
Please let me know what you think. Was this article helpful to you? Did you know this information already? Do you have anything you'd like to add?
Michael (author) from Indiana, PA on November 16, 2018:
Thank you very much! Ever thought about composting with worms? I had to in the winters when I lived in Pennsylvania. It's super easy after you get the feeding schedule dialed in.
Kate P from The North Woods, USA on November 16, 2018:
Really helpful reminder about how important soil is in the big equation.. a lot of people forget that. That soil jar test is great. I've always composted, but have always found it difficult in the winter with snow everywhere. It's bear country, and I can't risk a composter on the deck due to other wildlife. I wonder if there's something you can use indoors that doesn't have an odor.Well written and informative article. Look forward to reading more..