Some people are blessed with a natural green thumb. They could turn a plot of desert land into an oasis with ease. Then, there are others who struggle with the gardening process even when they enjoy it. They may read several books on how to grow an organic garden, but still never quite hit the mark. What many people may not realize, when doing organic gardening at home, is that the soil also plays a role in their success.
The good news is that unless you really are in the middle of the desert — and sometimes, even then — all is not lost. There are certainly ways to improve even the lowest quality soil types over time. It will take perseverance and patience, but it can be done. For those who take on the challenge, their organic gardens reward them with self-sustainability, additional income, and beauty. Here’s how to reap these rewards:
1. Understand Healthy Soil.
Before striving to improve the quality of your soil, it’s important to know what you’re aspiring toward. What are the components of the soil you need to improve, and why? Are all of these factors within your control? Or, are there some things you may need to find workarounds for? Here are a few of the most important things to consider:
People don’t often think of air as being a concern when it comes to gardening, but compact soil becomes waterlogged very easily. Healthy soil is about 25% air and is achieved through the help of living organisms.
Another 25% of healthy soil makeup is water. Without water, plants struggle to maintain their life functions, such as respiration and creating their own food. Well-aerated soil helps to maintain healthy levels of water.
If humus is what first comes to mind, you would not be wrong. However, there are other aspects as well, such as animal droppings and freshly cut cover crops.
Living organisms in the soil include protozoa, fungi, and earthworms. Moles and other pests are also possible, which may require professional intervention. For the most part, living things help to aerate the soil and assist with decomposition to break down nutrients.
Plants need minerals just like humans do. Minerals come from the breakdown of rocks over time to form soil. Plants then use these minerals to grow healthy and strong.
2. Identify Soil Type
To determine how far away you are from healthy soil, you first need to determine the current type of soil you have. This sounds a lot more difficult than it actually is. In fact, if the soil outside is sand or clay, you probably already recognize this on your own. Most soil types, however, are a mix. The prevailing soil type is usually the determining factor for gardening purposes. Clay, sand, and silt are the three main types.
One easy experiment to help you achieve this, is to get a one-quart jar and fill it one-third of the way with topsoil. Then, fill the jar with water, leaving a small air space. This provides enough room for you to give the contents a good shake until the soil is properly dissolved. After two minutes, all the sand will sink to the bottom. After a few hours, the silt will follow. By the following morning, the clay will settle on top. The colors will be slightly different, allowing you to determine which type is predominant.
3. Try Composting
The go-to method of improving soil quality for most organic gardeners is creating a compost pile. In fact, composting is one of the best ways to go green as you recycle organic material. Some people even use their compost pile to create clean-burning biogas for cooking. When it comes to soil improvements, composting produces humus much faster, and stabilizes nutrients that would otherwise wash out of the soil.
The key is knowing what to compost, when to use it, and how often to apply it. Some people rely on the slow-release method by adding a quarter-inch of compost material every season. Another technique that is becoming increasingly popular is to use earthworms to break down the organic material. Earthworm droppings then help to add more nutrients to the soil.
4. Use Livestock Manure
If you live on a farm or close to one, livestock manure is one of the most effective ways to fertilize the soil. Those who do not have access to this type of fertilizer may create their own by using a compost toilet. If you have a septic system, you may also be able to make changes that allow you to use the effluent. Manure improves the soil by adding nitrogen to the soil for the plants that need it. Some people believe manure is the best way to provide nitrogen to the soil.
However, some would argue that manure also adds the risk of contaminating water supplies as well as the potential for spreading diseases. This makes it important to take extra care when applying manure to the soil. The first precaution is to source your manure from either your home or small, local farms. You are less likely to encounter pathogens from these sources. Next, after applying the manure, wait at least three months before harvesting any leafy vegetables or root crops.
5. Include Beans
Sometimes called cover crops, gardeners commonly turn to legumes to improve nutrients in the soil. If handling manure does not factor into your idea of gardening, this is one alternative for adding nitrogen. The trick of legumes is to take nitrogen from the air and turn it into nutrients that other plants can take from the soil. Gardeners who rotate crops typically plant beans for a season or a year to replenish the soil before using the area again.
While most gardeners rely on beans for this type of soil improvement, there are other options. Clovers, peas, and alfalfa may also prove useful. Grain grasses that grow quickly make excellent cover crops too. Gardeners sometimes use a combination, which also works well. Even covering crops that are freshly cut can improve soil quality. A final bonus is that legumes are tasty. Use them in tacos, add them to rice, or make soups to make the best of this addition to your garden.
6. Maintain the Right pH
Next, you need to test the acidity of your soil. You can pick up a tester from your local gardening store or get one online. Before you use it, it’s important to note that some plants thrive in more acidic soils than others. That said, the sweet spot for most plants is between 6.5 to 6.8 pH. Consider the needs of the crops you want to plant before determining if you need to change the acidity of the soil.
There is no overnight solution for improving the pH of your soil. It takes roughly two growing seasons to achieve and requires ongoing maintenance. Powdered limestone is the most common way to reduce the acidity of the soil. Wood ash is a good alternative. If the soil is not acidic enough, consider sulfur. Some organic materials also naturally improve acidity. Among the best of your options are sawdust, oak leaves, conifer needles, and peat moss.
7. Grow Deep-Rooted Plants
Sometimes nutrients leach out of the soil and wash down deeper, away from shallow roots. There are also natural mineral reserves deeper in the soil that your regular plants may never be able to reach on their own. These minerals sometimes come from parent rock in the soil as it continues its weathering process to create more dirt. If you are gardening on a hillside, deep roots also help to hold the soil together and reduce erosion.
Your first thought may be to plant trees in your garden. This is not a bad idea, however, trees do take some time to grow. There are other plants that may complement this plan well, while you wait for the trees to get taller. Tomatoes are one type of edible plant with deep roots that collect not just minerals but water. Eggplants and squash also provide a similar benefit. To add to this, the squash’s big leaves help to shade the soil and prevent the moisture from drying out.
8. Provide More Shade
Squash by itself would not provide much shade for plants. This is another reason you should consider planting a tree or two in your garden. Following this, consider adding shaded areas. Many gardeners have successfully put up pergolas with beautiful creeper flowers to shade their most vulnerable plants.
If providing shade for your garden is not immediately possible, then consider your plant choices carefully. Some can handle the heat and dry soil better than others. One good example is melons. They withstand the heat well, and as everyone knows, retains moisture inside. Peppers make a good alternative also.
9. Add More Mulch
The use of mulch on top of the soil is a controversial topic among gardeners. Some experienced gardeners warn that high-carbon material steals nitrogen from the plants that need it. While this is true, if you have other mechanisms in place to maintain a good balance of nitrogen, then you can benefit from mulch. Mulch protects the soil during the winter so that organisms beneath remain insulated from the cold, and plant roots stay protected.
Mulch also provides food to earthworms and other useful organisms. These organisms further help to break down the mulch and add more nutrients to the soil for plants to use. Also, as previously mentioned, providing a hospitable environment for earthworms to thrive can only be to the benefit of your soil quality and plants. Good options for mulch include old newspaper, cardboard, wood fiber, and grass clippings.
10. Reduce Foot Traffic
You may never be able to prevent people and animals from traipsing through your garden completely. The neighbor’s cat, your family members, and even yourself may walk across the area from time to time. When you start an organic garden, try to find a permanent area for growing your plants that is not in a direct pathway to something else. This reduces the likelihood of people walking across the soil and compacting it.
If this is unavoidable, then consider a well-marked path going through it. To do this, you may choose to concrete a direct path through. Some homeowners have also had success with gravel and sand, while others just add stepping stones. Any of these options will help visitors and family members to remember what areas are acceptable for walking through, as well as the spots that are off-limits.
Speed Up the Process
The truth is that not everyone has the time, skills, or patience to improve soil quality manually. Even when you do, there is no denying the benefit of a helping hand. At Harvest Gold Organics, we provide a soil conditioner to make it easier for you to grow your favorite plants sustainably. To try our premium soil conditioner, place your order over the phone at 888-977-9934.