Garden beds and soil are more important than most people think. Soil is the primary source of most of a plant’s water, oxygen, nutrients, and anchorage. Since most of what we feed the plants is fed through the soil, it needs to be able to retain those nutrients and put them in a place and form that is usable by plants. 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 remember that gardeners don’t just grow healthy plants; they grow healthy soil. So how can we optimize our soil?
The first step in optimizing soil is getting as much texture as possible into the soil. A great soil texture results from soil particles of different sizes and forms. In terms of the size, if all soil particles were large, water and nutrients would wash right through the soil, leaving little for the plants. Conversely, if all soil particles were small, they would become condensed and hold onto most nutrients and water but not allow room for air or microorganisms. Having soil particles of varying sizes allows the soil to function as it should.
Similarly, the form of soil is equally important. Balanced soil is comprised of both minerals and organic matter. Minerals include sand, silt, and clay, while organic matter is anything that was formerly living. These two main ingredients (along with the air, water, and microorganisms that are also present) provide 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, the key elements are:
- Add lots of organic matter. Organic matter is the key to healthy soil as it usually comes in a well-textured form and is full of nutrients and water-holding capacity. Add several inches of compost to your soil each year, leave plant roots to rot in-ground when harvesting, and plant cover crops whenever you are not using the soil for more than a couple of months.
- Use crop rotation practices. Vary crops each year by family, nutrient requirement, and root structure 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.
- Keep the soil covered at all times. Use succession planting to keep the soil planted throughout the growing season, and then use cover crops in the off-season. This will reduce nutrient leaching, suppress weeds, and maintain the ecosystems and nutrient cycles beneath the soil.
- 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, the regular use of the above principles (along with help from earthworms, insects, and plant roots) will take the place of tilling going forward.
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