Healthy soil is the most underrated and uncelebrated hero of gardens worldwide. Here's what you need to know to take care of your soil.
It's impressive to look at a garden full of lush plants, trees, and shrubs, with plenty of colorful blooms and fruits. We feel in awe of the beautiful plants. But, they wouldn't be nearly so amazing if they didn't have a strong foundation of healthy soil to grow in. Healthy soil doesn't get the credit it deserves––it's really the unsung hero of successful gardens!
What's The Difference Between Soil & Dirt?
For most of the world, soil and dirt are interchangeable words. But there is actually a pretty significant difference between the two. To put it bluntly: soil is alive, and dirt is dead. Dirt, or dead soil, has little to no nutrients or organic matter and is usually devoid of microorganisms or bacteria. It may be hard-packed or sunbaked, or it may be light and dusty. Either way, there are not many things that will grow in truly dead dirt. On the other hand, healthy soil is loaded with organic matter, nutrients, and lots of beneficial bugs, microorganisms, and bacteria. These elements all work together to make viable plant nutrients and create a healthy soil environment that is perfectly porous and nutrient-rich.
Why You Should Always be Building Healthy Soil
Even if your flowers, vegetables, trees, and shrubs are looking lush and beautiful this year, you should always be working to improve your soil. Soil is a dynamic substance, and it changes based on what is grown in it and what is added to it. If you grow the same plants every year without ever adding any soil amendments or rotating plant varieties, you'll end up with dirt eventually because your plants will use up all of the available nutrients over time. It's essential to replenish them to keep your gardens healthy. That means building healthy soil is an ongoing job, just like keeping yourself healthy is lifelong maintenance.
Different Types of Soil
Loam soil is that black gold that all gardeners are aiming for. It has good structure, retains some moisture, but also drains well. Damp loam will easily form into a ball in your hands, but that ball will also break up quite readily.
Clay soil is very dense and does not drain well. It's heavy, thick, and sticky when wet, and turns rock hard and may crack when it dries out. It may be very high in nutrients, but it will need lots of amendments to improve drainage.
Peat has tons of organic matter but very few nutrients. Its highly acidic environment slows the breakdown of organic material. It retains moisture well.
Chalk is very alkaline or sweet soil. It's usually quite rocky and drains really well, but it doesn't hold onto nutrients or water well since it has little organic matter.
Sandy soil has larger mineral particles, compared to other soil types, so it drains fast and doesn't retain nutrients. It has a gritty texture.
Silt is like a combination of sand and clay. It is smoother and heavier than sand, with finer particles. It drains better than clay but may still retain too much water. But, the combination of small particles and more organic matter (often from sediment from a former watercourse) means silt is usually chock-full of essential nutrients. With the addition of more organic matter, it can be some of the naturally richest soil to grow in.
Common Soil AmendmentsHere are some of the more common things you can add to your soil, allowing you to work towards that treasured black gold.
- Organic matter like compost, garden clippings, grass clippings, manure, and mulch will benefit every type of soil and should be added every year in moderation.
- Fertilizers, especially synthetic, generally feed your plants quickly, but they don't have a massive effect on long-term soil health. Organic fertilizers have beneficial nutrients that can help improve the soil, but again, they're not a long-term solution. Fertilizers are one vital step in the process of growing healthy plants, but not the only step; they do not add organic matter to the soil.
- Horticultural or Agricultural Lime has a basic pH level, so it can be added to neutralize acidic soil, like soil with high peat content.
- Gypsum can help make nutrients more available to plants and improve the drainage structure; it's good to add to clay soils.
- Vermiculite, clay, or shredded bark will help improve the structure and density of chalky or sandy soils, helping them hold onto water and nutrients better.
How to Build and Maintain Healthy Soil
Building your soil up and maintaining its health is a long game. It's a marathon strategy, not a sprint, so be patient. Here's how to build healthy soil and keep it healthy over time.
Monitor Soil Health
What you need to add to your soil depends on what your soil is lacking. In general, organic matter helps, but it's best to test your soil regularly, every 2-4 years, to monitor nutrient levels and pH so that you can adjust your amendments accordingly. The amendments you add will also vary based on the types of plants, so it's best to test soil from different areas of your yard. You can get a test at the garden center, or the county extension office can help you find a soil lab to send samples off to for more comprehensive testing. You may want to get a comprehensive test done by a soil lab the first year to establish a baseline and then follow up with more basic at-home tests in the future to keep your soil healthy.
Add Organic Matter
Adding organic matter to your soil every year helps it improve over time and replaces nutrients used up by your plants. Compost is the best addition, but if you can't make enough in a year (the struggle of gardeners everywhere), you can conveniently purchase bags from our garden center.
Rotate Garden Crops
Different plants use different amounts of nutrients to produce their fruit, flowers, or foliage each year. Changing up your planting sequence every few years can greatly improve soil health and nutrient content. Crop rotation also helps to reduce the risk of pest infestations and disease.
Be Gentle on the Soil
You don't have to go full no-till, but generally, the soil doesn't need nearly as much digging as we expect. Topping soil with good compost every year and letting the earthworms, bugs, and rain carry the nutrients down creates better soil structure over time. Nature has this process down pat, so try only to dig as deep as needed to plant your seeds or transplants. Compaction is another struggle with the soil, and walking down the same rows and paths over and over causes soil compaction, making it more difficult for plant roots to grow through or for water to soak in. To avoid compacting your soil, you can lay down wide planks where you need to walk, which will distribute weight more evenly across a wider area, lowering the compaction you create.
Be Careful and Diligent with Fertilizer
Fertilizer is designed to give plants the nutrients they need quickly. If there are excess nutrients from fertilizer in the soil, it often just gets washed away, so apply as directed; more doesn't equal better in this case. Fertilizer can be very helpful for your plants, just be careful how much you apply. Follow the fertilizer instructions to ensure proper application, and consider using organic fertilizer instead of synthetic in your veggie and herb gardens to avoid ingesting any extra chemicals.
If you're ready to start building healthy soil in your garden, we're ready to help you. We've got all sorts of different soil amendments at the garden center, as well as soil tests. Our knowledgeable staff can help you get started building healthy soil.