In the world of gardening, while it’s the plants that we pay attention to, the root of all that is good comes from the soil. If we start with healthy, well-rounded soil, cultivating beds of luscious, nutritious, and delicious food becomes much easier. But, all soils are not created equal, and by and large, much of the soil we work with today is in need of a little love.
Luckily, working to reinvigorate the soil will quickly pay off edible dividends. It’s from the soil that plants get their nutrients, and in the same manner, that’s how our crops get the nutrient profile we consume. More quality ingredients in the soil means higher quality ingredients in our kitchen.
So, the obvious question becomes: What does the soil need to be healthy?
1. Soil Life
Soil life, the microbes, insects, bacteria, worms, and animals, is vitally important to healthy soil. It is what keeps the organic materials cycling and creating new fertility. The soil life consumes, digests, and poops those nutrients back into the soil. Essentially, it’s soil life that enables decomposition, such as in composting. Soil life can be increased from many sources: compost, manure, a scoop of forest floor, Bokashi, etc. But, it’s mulch that provides the right environment for soil life to thrive and multiply.
2. Rock Minerals
Rock minerals are something most depleted soils need. Mineral-rich rocks, like basalt and granite, are crushed into powder. This gets sprinkled over the soil to add back important elements like calcium and iron. Rock minerals are an inexpensive, very effective way of re-mineralizing soil.
Organic matter is crucial to healthy soils because it feeds the soil life and facilitates the nutrient cycles that prevent fertility from waning. Compost speeds the process along as it is organic matter that has already cycled through into a nutrient-rich substance. It also helps improve soil structure.
4. Grass Clippings
As long as we are doing yard work, we ought to make the most of grass clippings, which are very rich in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus (NPK). Clippings can either be piled for a few weeks to rot down and then added to active garden beds, or they can be put directly onto resting garden beds.
5. Green Manure
Green manure is a good way to actively and periodically reinvigorate garden beds. Instead of growing a crop to eat, every few seasons (or every winter), it’s a good idea to grow a green manure to simply chop down and feed back to the garden soil. Green manure is different than just using grass clippings because plants can be chosen to perform different functions, such as breaking up compacted soil.
6. Autumn Leaves
All those leaves that fall in the autumn are rich in minerals and break down into wonderful humus (not hummus, but humus), the dark material we find at the base of trees or on the forest floor. Autumn leaves should be piled and left to rot over fall and winter, and in the spring, the results make great soil amendments.
7. Worm Castings
Vermiculture is steadily growing in popularity these days, but the fact that worms improve the garden is nothing new. Worm castings are a rich material with outstanding bacterial life. Composting worms and vermiculture buckets can become in situ pieces of the garden, providing soil amending on the spot via “worm juice”, and ultimately, the castings can be spread over the garden.
8. Epsom Salt
While some of us may know Epsom salt as something to add to the bathtub, gardeners have long used it as a soil amendment. It increases nutrient absorption for plants. It helps with magnesium deficiencies, which aids in chlorophyll production, which means faster growth in plants and better vegetables. A spoonful in each hole before transplanting should do the trick.
A soil’s pH balance can greatly affect plants’ ability to absorb nutrients. A soil may be perfectly rich in vitamins and minerals, but if it is too acidic or too alkaline, plants are unable to access this stuff. Sulfur is what we add to alkaline soils to lower the pH …
10. Dolomite Lime
… And dolomite lime is what we add to acidic soils to raise the pH. For most crops, we want our soils to be mildly acidic; somewhere between 6.0 and 6.5 is the ideal pH balance.
Over time, if we continually practice feeding our soils with organic matter and occasional amendments, it will fully realize its potential, and our gardens will thrive with much less work on our parts. Good soil is the key.
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