Soil 101

Enrich your soil naturally for healthy plants

Where soil is concerned, keep it simple...especially if you are a beginner. Gardening is a learn as you go proposition; you won't learn it all in one season, so don't make yourself crazy thinking you're going to create an entire produce market all by yourself the first season.

Start with your dirt. Healthy plants come from healthy soil; it's alive with critters and healthy soil has plenty of them. You don't need to be a soil biologist to grow productive plants but it doesn't hurt to know the basics.

Rich loamy soil is not too sandy or too clayey. It drains well but holds enough moisture to nourish plants. It's dense with nutrients like nitrogen and potassium as well essential trace elements. Your soil is very much alive with a universe of invisible organisms. Keeping them healthy, makes your plants healthy.

Most of us have soils that are too much of one thing or another, so amending the soil is important. Soil structure can be dramatically improved by adding mulches and compost.

Grow your own compost

Compost is decayed organic matter that is high in nutrients needed by plants and microorganisms. You can create great compost from a combination of three parts of brown, carbon-rich sources like dead leaves, twigs, and hay to one part green, nitrogen-rich sources like grass, plant trimmings, or vegetable peels. Even the dead lettuce that has turned to mush in the bottom of the fridge can contribute to your compost. Never add dairy, meats, or fats to your compost pile. They make it stink and attract scavengers.

Even if you don't make your compost pile a second job, it's guaranteed to work eventually. Though it could take months, all materials decompose and provide nutrients your plants will love.

Compost benefits from being turned periodically and watered occasionally. If you want compost fast, make sure your proportions are reasonably close to the 3:1 ratio of brown to green material, water it so it is just damp, then turn it weekly to aerate so the little microbes can do their job. If you get it too wet and don't turn it, it will stink.

The goal with composting is to get the right elements together so various microorganisms can do their work. As the temperature rises a different type of microorganism takes over. When the pile reaches it's highest internal temperature it literally kills pathogens and weed seeds so your compost is pretty clean when it's finished.

Using manures

Manure is often available by the bag at nurseries. You can get various manures from different farm animals like chickens, steers, or sheep. It's rich in nitrogen, but until it's aged or composted, the nitrogen is in an organic form that isn't available to the plants.

Fresh manures may be high in salts and ammonia. Both can cause problems. If your garden has a normal salt content, you could create more problems than you solve by using too much. Also, the high level of ammonia in fresh manure can burn leaves and roots of plants. Another problem is inadvertently introducing a dozen new varieties of weed by way of manures.

Apart from the caveats, composted dairy manure is great stuff. Purchase it by the truckload from a gardening center or in individual bags depending on how much you need. Order it for delivery, or if you have a way to carry it, go to the gardening center. It's much less expensive than by individual bags. If you have access to a dairy farm that washes their manure, you can spend even less. Make sure it's aged and washed though, so you don't burn your plants. Because it's composted, weeds are generally less of a problem.

Dig it in

Work compost or manure into the soil as deeply as possible. New beds benefit from having it worked in from 6–18 inches deep. The deeper you dig it in the better, but any digging is better than none at all. The older the bed, the easier it is to work as soil structure improves. For existing beds of perennials you don't wish to move, spread a 4–5 inch layer and work it in. (This can be an ideal time to move or divide perennials, though, especially if it's been a few years. Spring soil preparation is an opportunity to be seized.)

About mulch

Mulch is a little different than compost. Compost is usually much more decayed than mulch, though it is also organic matter. Cedar chips, straw, cocoa husks, hazelnut shells, and coffee grounds are all used as mulch and you can add any of them to your compost. Most mulches are brown carbon sources and are used to deter weeds and retain moisture. As such, it's a useful top dressing. If looks are important, mulches can be chosen as much by appearance as by what they do. Dark brown coffee grounds are particularly attractive and roses love them.

Other Soil Amendments

You can add other components to your soil as needed. Testing soil helps determine where it is deficient and what amendments will help. You can purchase a soil test kit at the nursery or take a soil sample and have it tested through the county extension service.

Plants, like people, have individual requirements for happiness. Cactus likes sandy, well-drained soil in which their roots can easily spread. Roses seem to prefer a slightly acid soil, which is why coffee grounds seem to make them happy.

Some gardeners use plant by-products such as alfalfa, soybean, or cottonseed meal for its nitrogen, clean leaf compost, and wood ash. Rock and mineral powders are frequently rich in phosphates and potassium which release very slowly into the soil. Other products include seaweed fertilizers.

Another means of amending soil, especially during off seasons, is to plant a cover crop like red clover or fava beans. They fix nitrogen in the soil which succeeding plants can readily use.

Liquid supplements like Soil Soup® can be purchased at local nurseries then fed directly to the plants. Teeming with good organisms, this enhances the overall health of the soil and therefore your plants.

There are dozens of products on the market for improving soil health, but the bottom line is that you can improve your soil without buying chemical fertilizers. Organic gardening simply means paying attention and adding as much into the soil as your plants take out. It's really not complicated and it's very good for the planet.


The Ann Lovejoy Handbook of Northwest Gardening: Natural Care and Sustainable Design

Concentrate your gardening energies on laying out and cultivating new beds. Hire a professional landscape service to through ContractorNexus to help with seasonal clean up.

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