Challenges we face in the garden can often be traced to the quality of our soil. If you are gardening on a suburban lot chances are the good soil was scraped and moved to level the lot. What top soil does remain will naturally lose the organic material we associate with quality soil. Over time organic material breaks down. In a natural environment this is replenished by falling leaves and limbs which decay. If you have ever been in an old growth forest, you may have noticed the earth is dark and crumbly, retains moisture, and has the perfect structure for planting. This is the type of soil the gardener should strive for. What steps can you take to improve your soil, and gain success as a gardener?
For our purpose, there are three types of soil; clay, sandy, and loam. As gardeners the type of soil structure we are shooting for is loam. If the soil you are working with is too sandy, water will drain quickly. Perhaps not giving the plants enough time to draw water and nutrients. Chances are your soil is clay. Wet clay holds to a clump. It will not drain well at all, and will prevent healthy root growth. Loam lies between these two extremes. It will hold form when wet, but break apart when lightly poked with your finger.
The way to get to this type of healthy soil is to add organic material. There are several ways you can go about this, and I have listed some below. The key factor is to always be finding ways of improving the soil. It is a process that never ends.
First a note about sand. You will come across older books which recommend adding sand to clay soils. On the surface this seems a reasonable approach. In practice I have been disappointed in the actual results. First the sand is difficult to thoroughly mix in the clay soil. Second it doesn’t really help with the problem of clay soil hardening once dry. Stick with adding organic material to get the desired results.
Composting grass clippings, fallen debris, and pruning will give you some organic material to use. Unfortunately your composting pile is not going to yield enough to make a big difference. An exception is if you have to have trees removed, have the company chip and leave the pile for you to use. You can use this to mulch with. If you have enough, and plan to start a new bed in a year, spread the wood chips in a ten-inch layer, and leave it. The chips will break down and make a dramatic difference to the soil.
Peat moss is a favorite additive for some. Perhaps it works with sandy soils. I find that it increases ponding problems. Ponding is when after rain, or irrigation, the water just sits on the soil surface. Also, some contend that it is harvested at a faster rate than nature replenishes it.
Manure can be used, but I use it sparingly. I spread a thin layer. Then I place some “garden soil” on top as a medium for planting seed. Keep in mind composted manure does not have that much nitrogen in it.
My favorite is to buy bags of “soil conditioner”, and use it for a thick mulch. Soil conditioner is cheap. It is course enough to use as a mulch, and as it breaks down leaves an improved soil. It is too course to germinate seed. Make sure the old mulch is moved aside when planting from seed. Once the seedling emerges, and is producing real leaves, the mulch can be replaced.
Some will notice that I did not mention green manures. These are crops grown to improve the soil quality, and bind nitrogen in the soil. This approach is useful for those with large gardens, and I will try and cover it in a future article.
So how do you improve the soil in your garden? Let us know in the comments below.
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