12 SIMPLE Ways to GREATLY IMPROVE your Garden Soil!

Many times we forget how valuable soil as a resource is. It nourishes plants for growth so that we can eat. In recent years, more Americans have embraced gardening. In the process, they have discovered how important soil is in the ecosystem. Did you know that it takes about a thousand years for just 3 centimeters of soil to build up? Think of soil as our skin. We normally cleanse, tone, moisturize, take great care of our skin to remain youthful and attractive. Just like our skin, the soil needs care as well. If we take care of the soil, it will repay us by nourishing the plants in our gardens. How can you and I improve garden soil? Read on to discover 12 simple ways to improve garden soil greatly.

Add compost and organic diet

Adding compost [1] to the soil is one of the most commonly used methods of remedying the soil. Compost improves the soil structure, increases the population of soil organisms, and increases the organic materials the organisms feed on. It is also a buffer pH, and it helps to conserve moisture in the soil. It is important not to add excessive amounts of compost to the soil as it could cause problems, especially with specific plant varieties. For this reason, it is crucial to know the correct soil to compost ratio to reap the benefits of adding compost to your soil.

Before adding compost to the soil, you should ensure it is well-rotted and should not contain weed seeds. In recent times, some experts have been recommending spreading compost on top of the soil instead of digging the soil up to mix it. The baseline of this argument is that digging up the soil disturbs mycorrhizal fungi that help plants get nutrients from deep soil. If the soil in your garden has a good texture, spreading the compost is best. After all, worms, rain, and other natural activities will wash the compost inside the soil for the plant roots to absorb them. As you spread out the compost in the garden, ensure it is not more than 3 inches high. The general recommendation is to use one part compost for one part topsoil and one part each of perlite and peat in your garden.

Besides adding compost, you can greatly improve your garden soil by adding an organic diet [2]. Like the human body, the soil needs water, food, air, and shelter to offer the best plant growth environment. An organic diet for your garden means adding organic materials such as fallen leaves, kitchen scraps, and garden debris to the soil. You can do this by chopping the organic matter on the soil, mixing it up with about 2 inches of the topsoil, and mulching afterward. An organic diet will break down over time and improve the quality of your soil.

Till with worms

Did you know there is an alternative way of tilling your garden besides double digging? You can use the sheet mulching technique that invites worms to do all the hard work for you. In sheet mulching, the gardener builds compost on the soil surface. 2 to 4-inch layers of brown and green compost work well.

Compost is high in food for worms, so these important organisms multiply in the garden. The worms then burrow through the soil to feed and transport food. This burrowing process improves the soil structure and also improves the soil nutrient levels with their droppings.

Sheet mulching and tilling with worms takes time, so you must plan in advance. The process should start several months before the next planting season. When you use the sheet mulching and worm tilling technique, you build new garden soil rich in nutrients for optimal plant growth.

Grow your own soil

The soil in your garden is the foundation of your garden, so you should ensure you have the best quality soil. Did you know that you can grow your own soil [3]? You can do this by building organic matter because this is the richest portion of the soil. Organic matter is sticky, so it holds nutrients and absorbs water for the plants to thrive. Building your own soil is a very slow process that you should be intentional about. Science states that it takes at least 100 years to build one centimeter of soil, so you should not be in a rush to grow your own soil.

Growing your own soil requires a basic understanding of the soil food web. The web consists of numerous organisms. In fact, a teaspoon of soil contains 100 million to 1 billion bacteria. Soil also contains other organisms such as nematodes, protozoa, insects, worms, slugs, and more. Although most of us do not see the positive benefits of these living things because we think they are scary or gross, they are crucial for soil growth. They build organic matter and without them, growing your own soil is impossible.

Some of the practices you can engage in to grow your soil include adding animal manure to the soil, cover-cropping, mulching, reducing tillage, and vermicomposting.

In the off-season, you can plant cover crops such as buckwheat and clovers. These plants improve and grow soil by adding organic matter, losing the soil structure, and enriching the soil with nutrients. They also shelter your garden soil and control weeds. You should chop down these cover crops a few weeks before the growing season.

Test your soil

Soil testing [4] is a must-do for any serious gardener. It is imperative to conduct a soil test if you are about to start a new garden or whenever you notice a decline in your garden health. Soil testing allows you to learn more about your soil. You learn the corrective steps to rebuild damaged soil and the plants to grow in your garden. Also, you should have a basic understanding of your soil’s drainage, mineral density, composition, texture, and acidity. This information will save you from losses that occur when plant health declines due to poor quality soil. There are simple tests you can conduct at home to determine your soil’s health, and these are explored below.

The Squeeze Test

The squeeze test gives you information about soil composition. Soil is mainly classified into three types; sandy, clay, and loam soils. Clay is slow draining, very compact, and nutrient-rich, while sandy soil drains very fast and barely holds nutrients and moisture. Loam is the ideal soil because it does not stay soggy, and it can hold nutrients. To conduct this simple home test, follow these steps:

  • Moisten some soil from your garden, making sure it is not wet. Take a handful and firmly squeeze it.
  • Open your hand and observe it. If it holds shape and crumbles when you poke it, you have good-quality soil. If it holds shape but does not crumble when poked, your garden has clay soil. If it falls apart the minute you open your hand, you have sandy soil that is not ideal for gardening.

Knowing whether you have clay, sandy, or loam soil will guide you on ways to improve it.

The Percolation Test

The percolation test helps you understand how your soil drains. To conduct this test:

  • Dig a hole that measures about one foot deep and 6 inches wide
  • Fill the hole with water and let it drain completely, preferably overnight
  • Fill the hole again with water and observe how long the water takes to drain
  • If it takes over 4 hours to drain, your soil has a drainage problem

This test is important because most roots get root rot if the soil has poor drainage.

The Worm Test

Did you know that worms indicate how healthy your soil is? The presence of worms indicates biological activity. If your soil has earthworms, it likely contains beneficial bacteria and microbes important for healthy plants. To conduct the worm test:

  • Ensure your soil is moist but not wet and is warm enough. A warmth of 55 degrees Fahrenheit is recommended.
  • Dig a hole in the garden. It should measure about 1 foot deep and 1 foot wide
  • Place the soil on a piece of cardboard
  • Using your hands, sift through the soil, making sure you place it back into the hole. Count the earthworms as you do this.
  • If you find at least 10 worms, your soil is healthy. If there are fewer, it is an indication that your soil lacks enough organic matter or is too alkaline or acidic.

The pH Test

The pH test measures the acidity level of the soil. The pH scale starts from 0 to 14, with 14 being extremely alkaline and 0 being extremely acidic. Most plants in your garden will thrive in environments with a pH of between 6 and 7. Conducting a pH test at home requires home test kits that are readily available online or in stores. When you use a pH test kit, ensure you follow the instructions indicated in the packaging to the letter. Once you determine if your soil is too acidic or alkaline for plant growth, take the appropriate steps to remedy it.

NB: If you need more information about your soil’s health, you should consult agriculture or soil experts.

Professionals usually have equipped labs to conduct special tests. Check the nearest soil expert online and book a consultation with them. They will require a sample of soil from your garden to conduct advanced tests. It is your responsibility to ensure the expert you choose is qualified and licensed.

Supply what’s missing

Soil tests, especially the advanced ones conducted by experts, will help you know what your soil is lacking. This information will guide you in taking suitable amendment steps. It will come in handy when choosing the kind of fertilizer to add to your soil. It is better to use organic fertilizers in your garden as opposed to chemical-based ones. Always use the fertilizer as per the instructions, making sure you mix from the center of the garden if you intend to plant vegetables. If you have a perennial garden, add the fertilizer without digging up any soil.

Why nitrogen is important

Although there are several essential nutrients for plant growth, we will single out nitrogen because most soils have a short supply. Nitrogen is required to feed both soil organisms and plants. In fact, this essential nutrient determines long-term soil health. Each year, make sure you add enough nitrogen to your garden. Some of the sources of concentrated nitrogen in the soil are seeds, organic fertilizers, and blood. Manure and compost also add some nitrogen to the soil, but not in sufficient amounts.

Pull, Cover, Smother

Weeds are the worst enemy of your plants. Before planting anything in your garden, get the weeds under control to stop them from stealing all the organic nutrients from your plants. One of the simplest ways to control weeds is by mulching. When the garden beds are covered, you get a jump on weeds. At the same time, the mulch feeds the soil with organic material. It is also necessary to pull any weeds that emerge when they are still small and easy to pull out.

Recycle Perennials

Most Americans have beautifully landscaped gardens containing woodlands, hedges, or fruit trees. These plants are beneficial in soil amendment. You can prune the trees, trim the hedges, and use perennial cutting to feed the soil. This is called recycling perennials. The trimmings and cuttings make excellent mulch. When they are still green, they are a source of nitrogen for the soil. Softer perennial cuttings can be used as mulch or sheet mulch compost. You can chop the cuttings into small pieces before mulching.

Let soils dry

Sometimes, letting soil be is the best decision you can make. Every beginner or expert gardener knows about the planting season, which is spring. Before you plant your vegetables or other plants, it is wise to let the soil dry before digging or manipulating it. If you walk or drive on wet soil, you compact it and destroy its structure. The same happens if you dig it up using a rototiller or a hoe. Compacting the soil means that you squeeze out the air that microorganisms need to breathe, and your plants need to grow.

Always check if your soil is ready for digging in the spring before you do anything. Take a bit of soil in your hand and squeeze it. If water comes out, it is not ready for digging or planting. Let it remain untouched for about a week to dry out properly. It is important to mention that clay soil may take longer than a week to dry out because it retains moisture longer than loam soil.

Prevent soil compaction

Compacting your soil is one of the worst things you can do. Compacted soil does not support the optimal growth of plants. It causes stunted plant growth, nutrient deficiency, and poor root establishment. You compact your soil by working it through before it dries out. You can reduce soil compaction by:

  • Avoid working wet soil because it is susceptible to compaction. Always check the moisture level of your soil before digging or walking on it to ascertain its readiness.
  • Always use the correct equipment when digging or working the soil. After ascertaining that the soil is ready for digging, use equipment that is not too heavy. Weighty equipment increases soil compaction. You should always invest in lightweight and high-quality gardening supplies for the best gardening experience.

Rotate Crops

Crop rotation [5] involves planting different crop varieties during different seasons or years in the same garden. The opposite of this is monocropping that involves planting the same plants in the same garden repeatedly over several seasons or years. Crop rotation offers various benefits, including the following:

Weed Control

Crop rotation ensures you use different herbicides with different modes of action. This ensures the plants do not become resistant to weed-control herbicides and ultimately controls weed growth in your garden.

Insect and Disease Control

Crops from the same family normally have the same insect infestations and diseases. When crops from different families are rotated, this is controlled.

Improved Soil Health

During crop rotation, plants with different root lengths are planted in the same garden at different times. Those with deeper roots mine nutrients from the inner soil layer, while plants with shallow roots get nutrients from the top layers. As a result, the rotation reduces soil compaction by loosening the soil, improves soil structure, and reduces surface crusting.

Improved Crop Yields

Crop rotation leads to improved soil fertility levels that in turn cause improved crop yields.

NB: Although crop rotation is recommended, there is no single formula for reaping all its benefits. Rotation should be based on the size of your garden, budget, and needs.

Add animal manure

Adding animal manure [6] to your garden is one simple way of improving your garden soil. Manure contains plenty of essential nutrients, and it keeps plants green and healthy. Proper application of manure is key for you to reap the benefits of its use. It is best to mix it with compost to prevent the risk of burning your plants.

Alternatively, you can till the manure in the soil during fall or winter as you await the spring planting season. This will allow ample time for the manure to break down.

You can use manure from the domestic animals you have in your home or local garden centers. However, you should not use cat or dog manure in your garden because it is likely to contain parasites. Animal manure supports and promotes plant growth. As the soil and manure interact, the manure releases nutrients into the soil and also conditions the soil, loosens compacted soil particles, and increases the amount of carbon in the soil. All these benefits manifest in green and healthy plants.

Summary

Fertile and healthy soil is a must-have if you want healthy plants in your garden. Not all soils are the same, and some have reduced fertility due to different reasons. You can improve your garden soil regardless of the state it is in right now. The simple tips and techniques discussed above will assist you in remedying and enhancing your garden soil’s fertility and health.

Citations

  1. https://www.theprairiehomestead.com/2016/06/improve-garden-soil.html
  2. https://www.gardenista.com/posts/dirty-secrets-10-ways-to-improve-garden-soil/
  3. https://organicgrowersschool.org/gardeners/library/growing-your-soil/
  4. https://www.thespruce.com/easy-diy-soil-tests-2539856
  5. https://www.noble.org/news/publications/ag-news-and-views/2013/november/crop-rotation-yields-many-benefits/
  6. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/composting/manures/the-benefits-of-manure-in-your-garden.htm#
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