Garden soil is more important than most people think – it’s the source of most of a plant’s water, oxygen, nutrients, and anchorage. Soil can also affect things like the flavour of vegetables, the growth habit of plants, and the pests incurred by plants. It’s important to keep in mind that the best gardeners don’t just grow healthy plants, they also grow healthy soil.
How can we optimize our soil? Since most of what we feed the plants is fed through the soil, the soil must be able to retain those nutrients and hold them in a place and form that is usable by plants. Anything you to do improve your soil should be done before you plant anything into your garden. This lets you work the amendments into your garden soil so that it will be retained within the ground and not washed away by rain.
The first step in optimizing soil is getting as much texture as possible into the soil – a great soil texture is the result of soil particles of different sizes and forms. The soil particle size is all about balance. If all soil particles are large (sandy soil), water and nutrients would wash right through the soil, leaving little for the plants. Conversely, if all soil particles were small (clay soil), it would become condensed and would hold onto most nutrients and water but not allow room for air or microorganisms. Having soil particles of varying sizes mixed together allows the soil to function as it should.
The form of soil is equally important – a good soil is comprised of both minerals and organic matter. Minerals include sand, silt and clay, while organic matter is anything that was formerly living. Each of these provides different types and levels of nutrients, water-holding capacity, pores for air, and microbes for converting nutrients into a form that is usable by plants.
How do you change your soil texture and form? While the techniques for amending soil can form an entire textbook, here are some key tips:
- Add organic matter – organic matter is the key to healthy soil as it usually comes in well-textured form and is full of nutrients and water-holding capacity. Add a few inches of compost to your soil each year, leave plant roots to rot in-ground where possible when harvesting, and plant cover crops whenever you are not using the soil for more than a couple of months.
- Crop rotation – vary crops each year by family, nutrient requirement, and root structure in order to vary what plants remove from the soil, leaving a well-balanced soil mix behind.
- Never walk on garden soil as it compacts the soil and squeezes out air pockets – create permanent walking paths in your garden to ensure that you don’t step on your garden beds.
- Finally, avoid tilling the soil unless you absolutely must – usually you will only need to till soil for the first 1-2 years after converting it to a garden; then regular use of the above principles (with help from earthworms, insects and plant roots) will take the place of tilling going forward.
As always, please feel free to reach out at email@example.com if you have any questions about our Grow Veggies program or any of the topics in our newsletter!