To many, soil is simply the stuff that you plant in. It’s brown, and sometimes it’s damp and sticky. Sometimes you may add fertilizers to it, but that’s entirely incidental. The fertilizers are meant for the plants, not for the soil. However, thinking about plants without thinking about soil is like considering the apple but not the tree. The soil is where plants come from. In a very real sense, it’s what plants are made of.
Building healthy soil is essential to building healthy plants. A plant draws its nutrients in through the soil. While commercial potting soil is lightweight and easy to move when it is in containers, to grow vegetables that are nutritious, compost and soils with trace minerals are required.
Managing Your Garden Soil
Why manage your soil? Soil is the workhorse of the garden. Every year, you plant in it or expect it to maintain the growth of your perennials. The plants draw nutrients from the soil and some give nutrients back. Leguminous plants will draw nitrogen from the air and bring it into the soil, and decaying vegetation left on the soil will also provide nutrients to the garden. The microbes and nutrients in the soil help your plants grow. Healthy soil allows air and water to penetrate, but in just the right amount, helping plants access water when they need it. Soil is a hard worker, but it’s something that we often forget about in our focus on garden plants.
Soil is in particular danger if it is left uncovered during the late fall, winter, and early spring. The seasonal rain and snow can leach nutrients from the soil. Soil can erode from poorly-designed garden beds. Eventually, a gardener may find herself with a much smaller amount of soil that is far less nutrient-rich.
Green mulches or green manures can also act as a soil amendment. They play the joint role of soil protector and amender. In the fall, gardeners can sow nitrogen-rich fava beans and field peas. In the spring when the crops grow, the gardener can dig these plants under, enriching the soil with the nitrogen that is embodied in these plants.
Soil Maintenance Schedule
There are many, many items to add to the garden if you wish, but when?
Fall is the time to put the garden to bed, care for winter plants, and prepare for next spring. This is the time to plant green manures or cover crops. It’s also a time to mulch the garden with a thick layer to protect the soil.
In the winter, the soil in the garden may or may not be accessible. Keep a layer of mulch on the garden to keep winter plants warm and to protect their soil.
Spring is a time when plants are bursting into new growth. Before planting in the vegetable garden, dig green mulches under. Check out the garden soil. What does it need? Remove some of the mulch to plant and to let the light in to new seedlings. Add compost to amend the soil and provide needed fertilizer for the growing plants.
Early Summer/Late Spring
As the plants grow in late spring and early summer, side-dress with compost or add compost tea as a fertilizer or pest control. If it is very hot, consider a summer mulch once the plants are established. This will help keep the water in the soil to be used by the plants.
Till or No Till Soil Management
To till or not to till. People have been managing soil and plants for many years, but it is only in more recent times that we’ve felt the need to dig over large expanses of soil in our garden, add new soil, and recreate our gardens year after year.
The current standard of practice is to amend soil by moving compost or natural fertilizers into the soil, digging them into the soil layers. We also like to dig out unwanted weeds and rocks. Digging makes us feel good, and we feel like we’re doing something in the garden. We are certainly removing visible weeds, and we’re certainly mixing nutrients into the soil layers.
However, no-till gardens and soil management is also making a comeback. This is not just the realm of lazy gardeners who don’t feel like digging, although that might be part of it. No-till proponents say that digging disturbs the soil’s natural processes. In a forest, soils form in layers, with a rocky layer far below, morphing into a rock and humus layer. At the top of natural soil is often a uncoordinated layer of decomposing material, and under that is a rich layer of decomposed material called humus. Animals and smaller microbes do their work in the layers where decomposition is actively taking place.
Proponents of no-till soil management argue that disturbing the soil disturbs the tiny creatures that are doing the work of soil-building. It also brings weed seeds to light so that they can grow. Instead, they propose that soil amendments like mulch be added on top of existing soil, similar to what would occur in a forest.
However you manage your soil, the key to success lies in the first step: thinking about the health of your soil as something that is important to your garden plants rather than separate from them. Soil is the foundation of a garden. It provides some of the most important elements to the vegetables, fruit and flowers that gardens produce, and it should be honored and considered rather than taken for granted.
Tricia Edgar loves her small garden. She is an organic gardener who is intrigued by permaculture, straw bale and cob building, and green roof design. She also runs a sustainable skills mentorship program.