Table of Contents
Best Tips to Improve Soil Quality for Better Gardens
Create self-sufficient soil by making it healthy. You don’t want to provide temporary solutions to any problems. Manure and organic matter aren’t necessarily interchangeable in ecological gardening. Organic matter is the most important: leaves, plant waste, garden detritus, straw, hay. Straw, alas, encourages mice.
Another method of enriching the soil is to dig down and fill the hole with layers of aged leaves and manure. Earthworms do most of the work of breaking down these materials into compost.
Build up the soil with compost or make your own organic fertilizer as recommended by expert gardener: 4 parts blood meal, 2 parts bone meal and 1 part kelp or rock phosphate.
Here’s a good soil food recommended in the book Organic Gardening for the Pacific Northwest: 4 parts seed meal (or 2 parts fish meal), 1 part dolomitic limestone, 1 part rock phosphate or 1/2 part bone meal, 1 part kelp.
If you add bone and blood meal to coir, it will act as a fertilizer. Coir products are made from coconut fiber (from outer husk) and are used as an alternative to peat moss. Though I realize coir products have to be shipped long distances, that’s better than destroying peat bogs.
Leaf mold is an excellent amendment. Bag leaves and places them in a corner to break down, or dig them into a big hole and let them rot, or shred them and add to the compost heap. One thing you don’t do with leaves is thrown them out.
Maple leaves tend to mat if you put them on the ground without letting them break down first. Since the leaves of Norway maples contain alkaloids, they should be well composted before you add them to the soil. Oak and beech are acidic and will take longer to break down than other leaves. But they are great if you are building up acid areas in your garden. Black walnut leaves contain juglone, which is toxic to many plants, so you should probably not use these leaves as soil amenders.
Extremely sandy soil is too porous and it won’t support earthworms. Add masses of compost and keep adding as often as possible. Over time the soil will improve.
Solving Soil Problems
If you have soil with poor texture or density, try the following:
Dig a trench as wide as your spade, and as deep. Pile the soil from this first trench on a sheet of plastic. Loosen and amend the soil in the bottom of the trench to another spade depth. Dig another trench directly beside the first trench and put the excavated soil in the first trench; continue until you hit the last trench and then put the soil on the plastic sheet from the first in it. In all my years of gardening, I have never done this, but some people swear by it.
Raised Beds Garden
Double dig the soil and add enough moistened coir and compost or manure to raise the soil at least 8 to 10 inches (20 to 25 centimeters) above ground level. Always mix coir with other soil amenders; on its own it’s sterile.
Lead in the Soil
Though lead hasn’t been used in paint or gasoline for some time, there is still the possibility that it might have built up in the soil, especially if you live near a parking lot or busy road. By adding lots of compost and manure, you can decrease lead absorption. By maintaining neutral soil of pH 6.5 to 7, you’ll also be able to limit the build-up of lead in the soil.
If you have a lot of rocks on your property, you can use them in the garden. Position plants that like hot, dry conditions near large rocks. Place smooth, flat rocks near plants that like cool, moist conditions – put rocks over the roots of clematis, for instance.
If you must buy topsoil, be careful. Try to find out where it came from. If it’s from a field that was planted with corn, it may be filled with toxic chemicals. In that case, don’t buy it. Of course, it is likely to have come from the nearest housing development. The valuable topsoil is removed and sold, leaving new homeowners with nothing but subsoil and clay. If you’re in this situation, bump up the soil first before you go through the heartbreak of putting in a garden and watching it struggle. Use huge amounts of compost and manure to create healthy soil and keep it that way. Don’t be tempted by quick solutions.
Instead of buying soil, you can prepare your own potting soil mix – particularly if you have fears about vermiculite, which may contain asbestos, in commercial mixes. A combination of clean soil, sand (builder’s or horticultural sand is very gritty) and compost is a very good growing medium.
I don’t mess around with soil by cultivating it once it’s been planted. I like to think I’m not disturbing the complex life or delicate root systems that exist down there. After all, the most beneficial life in the soil is in the top inch (2.5 centimeters)
To create healthy, balanced soil in your ecological garden, use every alternative to cultivating that you can find. Be sure to mulch and otherwise keep the soil covered. (If you want to see what will happen when you fail to protect the soil, take a chunk of bare earth and aim your hose at it.) Return what you take from the garden to the garden (leaves, dead and dying plants – unless they are diseased). Feed with organic matter. Compost, compost, compost.
Green Tips for Better Soil Improvement
Make sure you know what kind of soil and drainage you have, and work with it or amend it to accommodate the plants you want to grow. Find out what was added to your soil before you took possession. If the area has been stripped of topsoil or if chemicals have built up in the soil, you will have to improve the soil over a period of time.
Plant when pests are less evident
A handy way to inoculate your soil against diseases is to plant marigolds and then rotate them from year to year. An added bonus: rodents don’t like them.
Learn to treasure the soil and approach it as a living creature rather than some dead stuff you clunk plants into. The more you are aware of the symbiosis between yourself and the soil, the more careful you will be with this miraculous substance.