Gardens like those featured in Better Homes and Gardens magazines are every gardener’s dream. Unfortunately, a far more common reality is a garden that thrives for a few weeks only to end with struggling crops, lower yields, and an exasperated gardener. Successful gardens can be achieved with closer attention to and care of the soil. Healthy, productive soil makes for healthy, productive crops.
Soil contains a vast, interconnected food web of microorganisms, earthworms, and other symbiotic elements. Plants contain mycorrhizal fungi, which are the “intricate associations roots form with specific fungal groups [that] represent the underground absorbing organs of most plants in nature," (Gianinazzi-Pearson, 1). These filaments interact with plant roots and surrounding bacteria to provide nutrients to the soil and to create a looser soil structure (Howard, 1). The carbohydrates released by the plants into the soil provide a nutrient-rich environment for the microorganisms teeming at the roots.
Just a spoonful of healthy topsoil can contain “600 to 800 million individual bacteria from a possible 10,000 species; several miles of fungal hyphae; 10,000 individual protozoa; and 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes from a possible 100 species,” (Ussery, “Build Better Garden Soil,” 1). This complex ecology can be easily damaged by poor soil structure or an imbalance of nutrients.
Let’s Break it Down.
In its basic elements, soil can be characterized as three distinct soil separates: sand, silt, and clay. These materials are from various parent materials with different chemical compositions and ultimately make up topsoil from quartz, thus containing little in the way of plant nutrients (Brady, 167). Silt contains many similar properties to sand but has much smaller, finer particles that give it a silky smooth feel (Brady, 168). Clay contains the smallest particle size of these three separates and has the greatest water absorption capacity and plasticity (Brady, 169). A mixture of these three separates in equal proportions is called loam. The arrangement of these particles makes up the soil structure and defines the soil tilth, which is “the physical condition of the soil in relation to plant growth,” (Brady, 187).
Organic matter is another essential component of healthy soil and is being produced evermore by decomposing plant matter, animals, and animal waste. The resulting material is referred to as humus. Energy from the decomposition of organic matter is harvested by various microorganisms throughout the soil that in turn provide nitrogen, enzymes, minerals, and other nutrients back into the soil for reuptake. Many gardeners may struggle to establish or maintain the right soil type and often make things worse by adding the wrong elements in efforts to amend the soil. Thankfully, there are several ways to bring soil back to a healthy, thriving and productive balance.
Adding diverse sources of organic matter is a great way to naturally improve soil. Livestock manures are a good source of nitrogen and provide readily available nutrients for soil life (Ussery, “8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil,” 1). Composting recycles nutrients from organic wastes and increases production of humus. Compost is generally applied every spring at a rate of 1 inch deep (Howard, 1). Mulching also provides similar benefits for soil as composting but is less disruptive to soil organisms during application (Kent, 1).
Throughout the decomposition of mulch and other organic materials, earthworms and other microorganisms mix the resulting product into the existing soil, which improves soil tilth. Chickens are also a great resource to rotate through garden beds because their scratching habits work the soil without the extreme disrupt of tilling practices. Minimizing tilling is important because it preserves surface-layer organisms, earthworm tunnels, and webs of beneficial fungi and prevents poor water drainage and compacted soil from buried plant debris (Howard, 1).
Cover crops are also an effective means of adding nutrients back into the soil, preventing soil erosion, and improving soil structure and fertility (Ussery, “8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil,” 1). The best soil will have a combination of what poultry farmer Harvey Ussery calls “the living, the recently dead, and the very dead,” which refers to live plant matter, the decomposition of soil organisms, compost, and animal wastes; and the final result of humus (Ussery, “8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil,” 1).
Once the organic matter has had sufficient time to incorporate into the existing soil, we recommend you collect a soil sample for analysis prior to planting the next crop. Soil analyses pinpoint deficiencies and ways that soil can be tailored to the next crop’s needs. Additional soil amendment products such as a mineral mix, calcium, or soil conditioner may be needed to boost the soil.
With these practices and a better understanding of soil properties and the expansive life found within it, the dream of a successful garden can be your reality.
Brady, Nyle C. and Weil, Ray R. “Soil Architecture and Physical Properties.” Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soils. 14h ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2014. Print.
Gianinazzi-Pearson, V. (1996). Plant Cell Responses to Arbuscular Mycorrhizal Fungi: Getting to the Roots of the Symbiosis. The Plant Cell (8), 1871-1883. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC161321/pdf/081871.pdf
Howard, Doreen. “Building Fertile Soil.” Mother Earth News. Ogden Publications, Inc., 1 June 2003. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/building-fertile-soil-zmaz03jjzgoe
Kent, Kathy. “Mulch Works Miracles by Building Up Garden Soil.” South Bend Tribune (Indiana). 9 Aug. 2003. LexisNexis Academic. Web. 3 Dec. 2015.
Ussery, Harvey. “Build Better Garden Soil.” Mother Earth News. Ogden Publications, Inc., 1 Apr. 2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/build-better-garden-soil-zmaz07amzsel
Ussery, Harvey. “8 Steps for Making Better Garden Soil.” Mother Earth News. Ogden Publications, Inc. 1 June 2007. Web. 8 Dec. 2015. https://www.motherearthnews.com/organic-gardening/8-steps-to-make-better-garden-soil-zmaz07jjzsel