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You chose a location that gets plenty of sunshine. You purchased the best quality seeds and starter plants. You followed organic measures for pest control. You monitored rainfall and watering carefully, even installing a drip irrigation system.
Yet, despite all these “right” steps, your garden did not flourish last spring and summer. In fact, despite another year of gardening experience under your belt, your garden did more poorly than the year before. Why?
As any experienced gardener knows, there could be a myriad of reasons for a poor harvest. But one area to closely examine is the condition of your soil. Healthy plants require healthy soil. This article examines nine ways to keep your garden soil healthy year after year.
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1. Test Your Soil
Successful gardening involves a continuous process of replenishing the nutrients in the ground. But you can’t renew what you don’t know you lack.
It’s essential to know the composition of your garden soil by testing it. Since your plants pull some nutrients from the ground and release others, testing is not a one-and-done situation. You’ll need to test every couple of years to make sure you have the right soil composition.
A basic soil test provides readings for soil pH, potassium, phosphorus, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. You also can learn about levels of lead and organic matter.
You can purchase soil testing kits online and in garden supply stores. If you prefer, you can take a soil sample to your local county cooperative extension service office for analysis and consultation.
Related Article: How To Test Your Soil The Way Pioneers Did
2. Add Organic Matter
Once you learn about any shortages or surpluses in your soil, you can make some changes to adjust the balance.
You may need to add some organic matter to enrich the soil. Organic matter can be anything that contains carbon compounds created by living organisms. Compost is decomposed organic matter that not only can enrich the earth but also help improve soil structure and help promote good drainage and aeration.
Here are some examples of organic matter:
- Alfalfa meal can boost the soil’s nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium.
- Worm castings add nitrogen.
- Bone meal offers phosphorus and calcium.
Related Article: Composting 101 – Read This Before You Start
3. Add Mulch to Your Soil’s Surface
You already know that mulch helps cut down on weeds, but it also helps nourish the soil and improves soil structure.
Shredded leaves release nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, and trace nutrients back into the soil as they decompose. Other options are straw, nut hulls, and tree bark.
Related Article: The Ultimate Guide to Mulching
4. Loosen Compacted Soil
Garden soil can harden, making it difficult for plant roots to grow and spread to reach the water and nutrients they need.
If water tends to collect on your bed rather than soaking in, you may have compacted soil. Compacted soil is most often a problem with soils high in clay content, but any soil can become compacted over time.
Working organic matter into the soil is the most effective way to loosen compacted soils. As the organic matter breaks down, it will aerate the soil. Avoid over tilling your garden; it often exacerbates the problem.
Also, avoid walking on a compacted garden bed. Your feet and body weight will further compress the soil.
5. Rotate Your Crops
Many gardeners swear by the three-year rule for crop rotation. This rule states that you rotate each crop every three years. Let’s say you grow beans in the garden bed the first year, tomatoes the second, and squash the third. By planting these three crops in succession, you will help keep the soil balanced and healthy.
Crop rotation also helps decrease plant diseases and pest problems by interrupting their natural cycles.
Related Article: The Complete Guide to Crop Rotation
6. Plant Cover Crops
Planting a cover crop at or near the end of your gardening season helps nourish and protect your soil. Benefits include protection from heavy rain, wind, and snow, less chance of compaction, and diminished weed growth.
Examples of cover crops are kale, radishes, turnips, beets, carrots, legumes, and peas. Grown primarily for the soil’s benefit, cover crops can provide food and other uses too.
As part of his efforts to teach cotton growers about soil replenishment, American agricultural scientist George Washington Carver promoted peanuts and sweet potatoes as cover crops. As a result, Carver ended up discovering hundreds of uses for the peanut.
7. Apply Aged Animal Manure
Another way to boost your soil is by adding aged animal manure. Keep in mind that fresh manure can harm plants and be too strong for the soil. Manure that has aged for several months or more is your best bet.
Pay attention to the source of the manure. While droppings from horses, cows, goats, sheep, rabbits, and chickens can provide valuable nutrients to your soil, ensure these animals did not consume feed or plants treated with chemicals. Otherwise, these harmful chemicals will be transferred into your garden.
Carefully work aged composted manure into the ground for best results, mixing it thoroughly to a depth of about eight to 12 inches.
8. Cover Your Garden in the Winter
A winter cover for your garden can help it retain nutrients, prevent erosion, and help subdue spring weed growth. Plastic sheeting, a tarp, or even a layer of cardboard can do the trick. Some gardeners have had success placing old carpet remnants down.
As winter winds howl and snow and ice gather, tiny microorganisms will be busy underneath the cover, nourishing the soil without any extra effort on your part.
9. Get Your Hands Dirty
One of the things that makes gardening so challenging—and rewarding—is that it is both an art and a science.
You’ll find that successful gardeners develop certain instincts for how their soil looks, feels, and even smells. Here are some insights we gathered from several state extension service websites.
- Dig up a large clump of your garden soil and closely examine it. Feel its texture between your fingers and observe its color.
- Sandy soil feels coarse and gritty and easily falls apart when it’s wet. Clay soil feels slick and a bit sticky when wet and then dries into hard clumps. Soil high in clay content often has cracks on its surface. Silty soil feels floury when dry but slick when wet.
- Press the clump of soil together tightly. Workable soil should feel granular and crumble readily.
- On the other hand, soil that is too wet is compact and sticky.
- Soil color can indicate the level of organic matter and drainage conditions. Very generally speaking, the darker the soil, the higher the organic matter content.
- Healthy soil tends to have a distinctive, earthy odor due to its content of beneficial microbes. Unhealthy soil may have a sour or metallic smell.
Maintaining healthy garden soil is a process. But it is one that will reward you with vigorous plants and a bountiful harvest from your vegetable garden. If you’d like to learn more, here are some helpful resources.
- The Secret’s in the Soil – Backyard Garden Soil Science Made Easy by Jessie Kelias
- The Mother Earth News Guide to Vegetable Gardening by Mother Earth News
- Basic Soil Science for Successful Vegetable Gardening by Bruce McCord
- Vegetable Garden Soil Science Made Easy by James Bright
- Tips for Healthy Soil in Your Backyard Garden with agricultural biologist Dr. Steven Mirsky
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