Healthy, good soil isn’t just soil; it also consists of an entire ecosystem that works to aerate it, provide nutrients, and continually process it. This natural ecosystem offers the ideal conditions to nourish a plant’s root system. If you genuinely wish to improve soil health for your garden, you’ll want to ensure your soil contains the following components:
A plethora of soil biota, including:
- The correct bacteria and fungi.
- Certain nematodes (also referred to as roundworms).
- Good worms and insects.
- Enough aeration.
- The perfect amount of balanced nutrients and natural fertilizers.
- The correct level of both retaining and draining moisture.
- An accurate soil mixture containing the right parts of organic and inorganic matter.
To maintain healthy garden soil, we can take steps like using wood chips, changing our garden layout and implementing raised beds, utilizing the things we already have available like grass clippings and green manure, and making sure we know the exact nutrient levels in our soil. Getting all these conditions correct leads to a delicious and nutritious vegetable garden.
Table of Contents
- The Creatures Within Healthy Soil
- Steps To Improve Soil Health
- Optimize Your Garden Soil Starting Today
The Creatures Within Healthy Soil
The essential key to great soil is the creatures living within. These lifeforms provide aeration through natural titillation, nutrients from breaking down plant matter, and help to maintain the perfect level of moisture by ensuring optimal soil consistency. This information is crucial to know before you can learn how to optimize this ecosystem and give it everything it needs to thrive.
This beneficial community works together to process and rejuvenate soil year after year.
Bacteria and Fungi
These microorganisms slowly break down the smallest particles from dead plants or animals to provide added organic matter for your plants. Specialized mycorrhizal fungi actively work together with root systems by bringing them water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates.
Also called nematodes, these types of worms actively work to eat plant tissue and will consume other soil organisms as well, providing additional nutrients to the soil. If you want more beneficial nematodes, you’ll want to provide them with plenty of biodiversities, compost, and mulch.
Insects and Earthworms
These two crucial creatures break down more significant organic material into smaller pieces for nematodes, fungi, and bacteria to process. Earthworms are also beneficial for burrowing and aerating the soil, allowing more water to reach the root systems.
Steps To Improve Soil Health
1. Plan Each Year & Rotate
You’ll want to switch where you usually plant the same crops each year. This ensures that any soil pathogens, pests, and diseases will not be able to run rampant as some types like to prey on specific plants. Disease-causing microbes can overwinter and will take the opportunity to cause damage if you provide them with the same plants they had last year.
Rotating crops each growing season will also improve your soil nutrients because keeping the same plants in one location can deplete only certain nutrients from certain soil areas. For example, some plants have shorter root systems than plants with deeper ones. Some plants like peas, nasturtiums, and beans add nutrients to the soil.
A great rule of thumb to go by when switching crops is to change the type of plant family you plant each growing season. Diseases like to stick within families. Here is a list of the different plant families:
- Potato/tomato/nightshade family
- Mustard family
- Squash Family
- rose family
- pea or legume family
- grass family
- knotweed family
- lily family
- mint family
- heather or blueberry family
- goosefoot family
- carrot family
- sunflower family
2. Know Your Soil
Many basic soil tests are available that can give you a good look into your soil health or any potential area of issue. Your nutrient soil needs to contain essential macro and micronutrients like potassium, magnesium, sulfur, calcium, nitrogen, and phosphorus. Organic matter soils contain all these ingredients in the correct amounts and balance.
Another crucial aspect is knowing your soil’s pH level. Even if you have the correct amounts of nutrients in the ground, an incorrect pH level will mean they are unavailable for plants to absorb. Improve your soil’s pH to an optimal level to ensure healthy vegetables in your vegetable garden.
3. Till Only With Living Creatures
You may see large manual tilling machines on a large farm and think that your garden should also be managed in this way. However, this would be incorrect as large amounts of tilling can damage your garden by killing the organisms and encouraging rain to wash away beneficial nutrients. Instead, rely on the natural ecosystem of living creatures and support their habitat by minimally disturbing the soil only if you absolutely need to.
These organisms naturally burrow throughout your soil, create tunnels and turn over the ground in time. If you need to turn over the soil to add fertilizer, use a small shovel or digging fork. A popular method of natural tilling is called sheet mulching. This includes putting compost directly on top of your soil. Worms will then pull the nutrients down into the ground.
4. Change Your Soil Mixture and Garden Design
Upon the soil surface lay a layer of wood chips. Mulch conserves the moisture and nutrients in your soil and protects it from runoff or splashing into the air due to heavy rainfall. Mulch also protects the leaves and stems from pathogens and helps minimize weeds. Be aware of the type of mulch you choose for the setting.
Softer woods like pine or shredded bark will break down faster than harder woods like cedar. You can also use stone mulches if you do not want your mulch to break down over time. Never use un-aged wood chips as mulch since these will draw nutrients like nitrogen away from your plants that need it.
Utilize Raised Beds
Instead of having your garden beds in the ground, build them on top. These ensure you have designated paths, are not walking and compacting roots, and provide an optimal soil environment. They also give you more control with easy access on all sides and a concentrated focus on soil quality in each bed. Raised beds also warm up quicker in the spring, are less compacted, and have better drainage.
There are a few different ways to build raised beds, but whichever way you choose, consider putting down a liner to block out weeds and insulate them.
Make Soil Amendments
Change and improve soil structure and change your soil type. Common additives are perlite, sand, vermiculite, lime, sulfur, wood ash, coconut coir, and peat moss. These can help change the consistency of your soil and increase moisture with coconut coir and peat moss or decrease it with sand, perlite, and vermiculite.
Lime raises the pH of acidic soil, sulfur lowers the pH of alkaline soil, and wood ash raises the pH of acidic soil. Some plants prefer drier soil, whereas this can be an issue for others. If your area naturally has sandy soil and you’d like to grow plants that don’t thrive in this condition, you’ll need to amend it by adding organic matter and inorganic ingredients.
Wood chips are an excellent addition to create extra aeration. If you do choose to create raised garden beds, needing to amend the soil may not be an issue because you can ensure premium soil from the start when you fill in the beds. You can also use a fertilizer like one from the brand Bionova. Bionova has incredibly high-end, high-quality products, and the brand also focuses heavily on its climate impact.
5. Implement Organics
Green manure is the perfect addition to an organic garden. Green manure consists of any growing plants actively plowed back into the soil. Green manure is also referred to as cover crops because these are grown with the intended purpose of being put back into the earth for nutrients to improve your soil.
Adding regular manure provides plenty of added organic matter for your plants to take nutrients. If you use manure for your vegetable garden, apply manure only in the fall and not during spring or summer. Manure provides many primary nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.
Have and maintain a compost pile that you can use to fertilize and improve the soil. Compost is an excellent source of organic materials, and adding compost ensures your soil receives the correct amounts of macro and micronutrients. Compost also helps to improve soil structure by adding aeration through the varied pieces of organic matter.
Great compost will actively encourage and strengthen the ecosystem that is important for soil health. For the best compost, create layers of materials, including kitchen scraps, grass clippings, garden debris, dried leaves, wood chips, soil, and water.
Once you mow your grass, don’t throw away the trimmed pieces. These clippings contain high amounts of nitrogen which your garden will love. This organic matter breaks down quickly and also boosts the porosity. Clippings are also a good additive if you have sandy soil or soil heavy with clay.
Worm castings are a fantastic way to add nitrogen to the soil. This additive contains many essential nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, iron, calcium, sulfur, and humic acid. Worm castings will increase the amount of water retention your soil has, which will, in turn, allow your plants to soak up all the nutrients it contains quickly.
This is another beautiful organic matter that provides phosphorous and calcium and is best used in the spring to help your plants develop robust root systems. It also increases beneficial soil microbes and can generally help balance other soil additives. You can also apply additional bone meals once or twice throughout the season if you need to strengthen the roots or boost the plants.
Organic Fertilizer Blends
Choose a well-rounded organic fertilizer to produce the best results in your vegetable garden. A great organic fertilizer will ensure that your plants receive the correct amount of nutrients gradually and safely.
Organic fertilizers are often blends of the organic ingredients listed above. The manufacturers try to balance the ingredients to achieve a particular purpose like vegetative growth or boosting the blooms and fruits. These are typically blended into the soil. Then the organisms in the soil break them down over time, so you’ll see the results spread over a quarter year or more. Additionally, you’re building a healthy soil microbiome.
Organic fertilizers can also be in the form of concentrated extracts that perform a lot like mineral based nutrients. And that means more frequent application, and that you’ll forego the benefit of feeding the soil bound organisms and the soil microbiome. One indicator to spot the difference between types of organic fertilizers is the application rate.
6. Take Care of Issues
Pests and diseases are elements all gardeners end up facing. Instead of turning to an artificial pesticide that contains chemicals harmful to beneficial soil organisms, choose a natural option to ensure your plant roots stay healthy. Here are some natural insecticides:
- horticultural oils
- insecticidal soap
- spinosad BT (Bacillus thurgiensis)
- essential oils
In addition to using insecticides, you can manually remove pests as you see them. For example, pick off larger bugs like Japanese beetles or blast your plants with water to knock them off. Fence off your garden beds to keep larger animals from entering, or you can use physical barriers like transparent netting to cover entire beds or just fruit as it grows on the vine.
Optimize Your Garden Soil Starting Today
Start to improve soil health for your garden by first evaluating what your soil needs to improve. Physically inspect your soil for its consistency. It should be fluffy, not too dry or wet, and contain plenty of organic material.
Get a scientific reading on the nutrients and pH of your soil to be informed before choosing a quality fertilizing option. Once you know what you need, it’ll be easy to choose the proper additives based on what they can do for your soil. Keep notes and a plan for your garden each year, and you’ll easily be able to adapt and be in-tuned with what your garden and individual plants need.
Watch both your knowledge and garden grow beautifully alongside each other.