Healthy soil is the foundation for a successful garden. Thriving, lush plants aren’t possible without good soil to support them. A lot of times we get distracted by other tasks and our soil is often overlooked, even though it’s more important than most other factors in the garden. When you’re preparing for a new garden, the first thing you need to do is to make sure that your soil is ready.
The Role Soil Plays
The soil is the source for everything that the plant needs, except for sunlight and carbon dioxide. Plants take up all of their nutrients from the soil. Water is also absorbed through the soil, even though the top of the plant gets wet during a rain shower or watering. For many years, gardeners simply added the nutrients that they knew the plants needed back to the soil in the form of fertilizer. Fertilizer is a quick fix for a larger problem. The soil itself should be healthy so that it can support your plants properly.
What does it mean to have healthy soil?
Healthy soil is more than just nutrient-rich. Nutrients are a key factor in your garden soil, but they aren’t the only thing that you should pay attention to. Your soil should be able to hold water without becoming soggy or saturated. The water should remain in place long enough for the plant to get water absorbed, but not too long that it causes root rot.
The soil should also support life other than the plants you put into it. Soil that supports healthy plant growth has all sorts of insects and microorganisms growing in it. Many of these microorganisms are necessary for healthy plants. One such microorganism is mycorrhizae, a fungus that helps roots to absorb nutrients from the soil. Mycorrhizae forms a symbiotic relationship with the roots of plants. Healthy garden soil shouldn’t just support your plants, but the entire ecosystem that lives within that soil.
Read on to learn how ensure that your soil is healthy and ready for a new garden.
You know that your soil needs to have all of the right nutrients for your plants to grow properly. You’ve probably also heard that ‘dark soil equals healthy soil’. This isn’t always true. Soil that looks ‘stripped’ can still have nutrients in it to support plant growth. Dark soil isn’t always nutrient rich as there are many minerals and substances that can cause soil to be dark in color.
The best way to understand what nutrients are in your soil is to perform a soil test. You can purchase a soil testing kit to do this or you can collect a soil sample and mail it off for a detailed test. A soil test will give you an idea of the major/macro nutrients in your soil – nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. All three of these nutrients are critical for plant growth. You’ll also learn about the micronutrient levels in your soil if you use a detailed test kit or mail samples off to have them tested.
In addition to the nutrients, you should also test the soil’s pH level. The ideal pH level for your garden will vary depending on the plants you’re planning to grow. However, most plants thrive in slightly acidic soil, with a pH of around 6.0-7.0. In some areas of the country, the soil is naturally acidic and you’ll need to amend your soil with lime. Other areas of the country have soil that is naturally alkaline and you’ll need to add sulfur or peat to bring the pH back down. A typical soil test kit will include a test for pH.
One of the best ways to add nutrients to the soil and to adjust the pH is with compost or manure. These additives have the ideal nutrient profile and are usually at the proper pH. Adding manure or compost to the soil will add nutrients that will last longer than water-soluble fertilizers.
Soil texture is important because it will determine your soil’s water holding capacity. Remember, you want healthy garden soil that will hold water without it draining out quickly, but you also don’t want the soil to hold so much water that your plants drown. Plants need air pockets around their roots to stay healthy. If there’s too much water in the soil, those air pockets are filled with water, which causes root rot and plant death.
An ideal soil is loose and spongy in your hands. It’s nearly an equal mix of all three soil particles- sand, silt and clay. When you have an equal amount of sand, silt and clay, it’s referred to as a loam. Soil that has too much sand will have trouble holding water and nutrients. When water drains through the soil too quickly, it pulls nutrients down with it. Soil that has too much clay is often sticky and holds too much water.
You might be able to amend your soil by adding some of the soil particles that your soil lacks, but that’s not as easy to do as you’d think. The easiest way to fix the soil’s texture is by adding compost. Compost is a miracle-worker in the soil as it can fix water issues, whether your soil is holding too much water or not enough. Compost will help the soil to hold just the right amount of water and add nutrients at the same time.
Keep a journal of how you lay out your garden each year and make note of where certain plants are planted. Some plants will pull certain nutrients out of the soil more than others. This can create an area of soil that lacks certain nutrients. For example, tomatoes will pull large amounts of nitrogen out of your soil. If you plant tomatoes in the same space year after year, you’ll strip that area of your garden of nitrogen unless you do some serious soil amending between tomato plants. Use a gardening planning app like From Seed to Spoon to monitor crop, planting and germination time, consult growing guides, and efficiently manage your vegetables garden.
Crops that pull a lot of nutrients from the soil should be rotated yearly to give the soil time to recover. You can also plant cover crops in between heavy-feeding plants to help the soil recover faster. Legumes, like beans, will actually add nitrogen back to the soil. These can be planted in between growing seasons to help your soil stay healthy.
The easiest way to keep your garden soil healthy enough for new plants is to keep it amended. Compost and manure are ideal go-to additives. Use fertilizer as a secondary option since it won’t support longterm soil health the way compost and manure will. With a little planning ahead and careful soil management, you’ll be growing lush, productive plants in no time.
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Post by Shelby DeVore, founder of Farminence and host of the Backyard Vegetable Gardener’s Summit. Shelby is a passionate gardener with 20+ years of experience gardening and growing food at home. She recently moved to north Texas with her husband and three children where she’s excited to explore a new gardening zone and build a new farm.