Attaining and Sustaining Exceptional Garden Soil

The soil is often seen as boring in gardening. Although garden soil is not as glamorous as selecting plants or as exciting, it is a foundation that is both literal and figurative for your gardens. Before they plant, new gardeners are advised to improve their soil. However, few understand the wisdom of this advice until their plants struggle for survival and demand more food and water. You learn organic gardening to let the soil nourish the plants and feed the soil. It also supports a variety of microorganisms and insects. Addition of organic matter in your soil will provide food for beneficial microorganisms, which release nutrients as they decompose organic matter. As they move around the soil, earthworms and soil-dwelling bugs aerate it. They also contribute organic matter through their waste. Healthy soil is the result.

Spraying pesticides on plants can cause them to enter the soil, where they will kill microorganisms and insects. Synthetic fertilizers can contain salt which is toxic to soil residents and also builds up in soil, causing harm to plants. Synthetic fertilizers do not increase soil fertility.

Four factors are important when discussing soil: texture, pH, organic material, and fertility.

Soil Texture
The size of soil particles is referred to as the texture.

Sand is the most coarsely divided particle. Sand drains well and feels coarse. Sand does not compact easily.
Silt: Silt is a smaller particle than sand, but it still has irregular shapes.
Clay is composed of microscopic particles that are nearly flat. Clay is very easy to pack, leaving no space for water or air to move.
Sandy loam: Sandy soil is the best garden soil. It consists of three different textures. Don’t rush out to add sand to your clay soil, or vice versa. You can make cement by mixing sand with clay. The equation is more complex than simply balancing the soil textures.
Soil Structure
You can usually determine your texture by testing the structure. Test your structure to determine your texture. Squeeze some damp soil into a small ball and hold it in your hands. If the ball breaks apart when you poke it lightly with your finger, then it’s probably sand. You’re probably dealing with silt if you apply a little more pressure. If the soil doesn’t move despite poking it, it is mostly clay. Try this simple experiment to get a better reading on the percentages of each soil texture.

The soil should be crumbly. It allows for roots to grow through it. Air can also pass through. Water drains but not too quickly. Percolation tests can be used to determine how well soil drains.

Two basic methods of improving soil structure work together.

Tilling can sometimes be necessary to loosen the soil structure. Tilling can cause soil to crumble and kill the insects that live there. Regular tilling is therefore not recommended.

Addition of organic matter is another option that will improve any soil type. All organic matter decays, including compost, leaf mold and manure. They enrich and loosen the soil, and they provide food to soil-dwelling bugs.

Soil pH
The pH of soil is a measurement of its acidity (sourness; a value below 7.0); or alkalinity, (sweetness; a value higher than 7.0); 7.0 being the neutral level. The neutral pH range is preferred by most garden plants. Some plants have more specific requirements. Lilacs, clematis, and other plants thrive in soils that are sweet. Rhododendrons, blueberries and other plants like lower pH levels. You can change the pH of different areas in your landscape.

In general, if you have healthy plants, then your pH level is likely to be fine. It’s worthwhile to test your pH if your plants have nutrient issues or aren’t growing well. The pH of the soil is important for plants. If it’s not in an acceptable range, they will not be able access nutrients.

Many types of pH test kits are available in garden centers. For a small fee, you can bring in a sample to your local Cooperative Extension office for testing. You can adjust your pH slowly once you have determined what it is. Add some type of lime or sulfur to lower pH. The type of lime and the amount you add depends on your soil and results. You can find out what to do with your test results in the Extension report or most testing kits.

It takes time to change the pH of soil by adding sulfur or lime. You will need to test your soil periodically to make sure it does not revert back to its original pH. It may take several months for the pH to change. Sometimes it is easier to change the plants you grow to match your pH.

Organic Matter
You should use organic matter in your garden because it can do so many wonderful things. Organic gardening would not exist without organic matter. In nature, plants feed on organic matter that has decomposed. Most gardeners remove dead plants that fall onto their lawns. The leaves would be much better off blown into the shrubs, where they can not only mulch the soil and prevent erosion but also feed it.

Addition of organic matter to soil will improve soil structure, and provide food for microorganisms as well as insects. The less harmful organisms that survive, the more beneficial microorganisms you can have in your soil. They feed on harmful microbes like nematodes, and soil-borne diseases. When they die, they also release nutrients into the soil. The more beneficial microorganisms in the soil the more nutrients there will be. Many types of organic material add even more nutrients to soil.

Acids in organic matter can also make roots more permeable and improve their ability to absorb water and nutrients. They can also dissolve minerals and make them available to plant roots.

Types of organic matter
Compost is the poster boy of organic matter. Compost can be any type of decayed organic material. Compost can be made at home or purchased in bags or trucks. The finished compost is dark, crumbly and earthy smelling. The composting process will render weed seeds and fungus spores ineffective. Compost is a great addition to any garden, whether it’s used to turn into soil or as a top dressing or mulch. It is recommended that you do not compost perennial weeds or pesticide-treated materials, but almost all other plant material can be used.

Clippings of grass
Garden waste (from deadheading and pruning, weeding)
Vegetable peels
Animal manure that has been aged for six months to a year is a natural organic material. It also contains soil nutrients. Animal manure should be aged between six months and a year prior to being applied to the garden. Fresh manure can burn your plants and contain bacteria which may cause illness if it comes into contact with them. It also stinks. Add fresh manure to your compost pile and let it age.

There are many varieties of manure, including cow, sheep, chicken, and more. Human, cat, dog and pig manures are to be avoided because they can cause disease in humans.

Green manure. Cover crops grown to turn green manure into soil. This would be most useful in the garden, or a newly-created bed, where tilling won’t harm perennial plants.

Different green manures have different benefits. Alfalfa, for example, is grown because of its deep roots. It can be used to loosen and break up compacted soil. Vetch, vetch, and legumes can absorb nitrogen from the atmosphere and release it through their roots. Clover, if allowed to bloom, is particularly attractive to beneficial insects and pollinators. All green manures suppress weeds, prevent erosion, and reduce nutrient runoff on areas that are otherwise unplanted. Once they have been tilled into the soil and started to decompose, they will all help create good soil structure as well as food for microbes. Annual ryegrass is a popular choice for green manure. Winter wheat, rye, barley, buckwheat and clover are all good choices.

Soil Fertility
Nutrients in the soil are a final component to building a healthy soil. Plants need nutrients just like humans to grow and fight disease. Organic fertilizers are made from animal, plant or mineral sources. They basically return what was taken out of the soil. Organic fertilizers release slowly so that plants are able to feed themselves as needed. The soil is not suddenly changed, as this could harm the microbes.

A healthy soil requires a continuous process. You can create a sustainable organic gardening by focusing on healthy soil at the beginning of your garden.