Tag Archives: soil building

The Importance of Sustainable Soil Management

Your garden harvest starts with healthy soil. How much produce you get, whether your plants are affected by disease, and even how many pests you have can be affected by how you treat your soil. But how you manage your soil can also affect wildlife and the environment.

Algal Blooms

On this blog, we’ve frequently discussed the importance of mulch and cover crops. They are two simple ways to help prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff. While these effects are obviously bad for your garden they also have more far-reaching consequences. When soil and nutrients erode they contribute to algal blooms in streams, lakes, rivers, and eventually the ocean. 

Algal blooms can be green, red, blue, or brown. They affect both marine and freshwater environments and produce toxins that have a variety of negative effects. The toxins can sicken or kill people and animals, create dead zones in the water, raise treatment costs for drinking water, and hurt industries that depend on clean water. One way we can prevent these algal blooms is to practice good soil management.

Good Soil Practices

Sustainable soil management means using practices that build healthy soil, reduce erosion, and reduce the need for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides. They include:

  • Planting cover crops, especially in the fall to prevent erosion and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
  • Using mulch around plants whenever possible to prevent erosion, suppress weeds, hold moisture, and add nutrients and organic matter to the soil.  
  • Rotating crops to disrupt disease and pest life cycles and reduce excess nutrients.
  • Reducing soil compaction which helps fungal and insect life in soil thrive. Whenever possible reduce tilling and using equipment. 
  • Providing habitat for beneficial insects like cover crops, mulch, wildflower patches, and insect hotels.

While small gardeners and farmers are not the biggest contributors to this type of pollution every little bit helps. Making these small changes can improve your garden, improve water quality, and help wildlife.

Understanding Soil Tests

If you’ve never had your soil tested you may want to consider it. While soil tests may seem like something more suited to commercial growers than backyard gardeners they’re actually quite simple and affordable. In fact some local extension agencies and/or state colleges offer this service for free. While you can purchase at home soil tests generally having it professionally done is a good place to start. 

Here’s what you can expect from a soil a test and what it will mean for your garden. 

Macronutrients

Primary Nutrients

The following three nutrients are considered the primary nutrients and the probably the most discussed by gardeners.

  • Nitrogen 
  • Phosphorus 
  • Potassium 

Nitrogen is important for plant’s vegetative growth. Phosphorus helps in root and flower development. Potassium promotes vigor. These are found in a variety of commercial fertilizers and homemade garden amendments.

Secondary Nutrients

  • Sulfur 
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Calcium helps plants build strong cell walls, magnesium is an important part of chlorophyll, and sulfur is important for the growth of roots and seeds. Just like primary nutrients these secondary nutrients can be purchased in commercial amendments or you can make homemade ones.

Micronutrients/Trace Minerals

Some soil tests will give you the option of testing for micronutrients or trace minerals. These are minerals that plants need in very small amounts. 

  • Boron 
  • Chlorine
  • Copper
  • Iron
  • Manganese
  • Molybdenum
  • Zinc

Unless you suspect a problem testing for these is probably unnecessary. Most soils have enough to keep plants healthy and deficiencies in these minerals aren’t caused by their lack of presence in the soil rather an inability for plants to take up the nutrient because of other problems such as drought stress or incorrect pH. 

These minerals are also typically present in large enough quantities for gardens in any organic fertilizer or other amendments even simple, good quality compost. 

Soil pH Level

Another important part of your soil test is your soil’s pH. pH is the measure of how acidic or alkaline your soil is. It’s an important feature on your soil test as it affects soil nutrient availability and microbe activity. This means that even if a nutrient is in your soil it may still be unavailable to plants do to your soil’s pH.

It’s also worth noting that some crops like blueberries and potatoes prefer more acidic soil than others. 

Amending Your Soil

Once you get your results you can amend your soil as needed. There are a variety of products available commercially or you can use homemade garden amendments like compost and compost tea, manure, coffee grounds, egg shells, pine needles and more. 

You may be able to get personalized recommendations from your local extension agency or soil testing service.

When adding any garden amendment it’s important to thoroughly research its effects on your garden. Certain amendments like oyster shells for calcium can affect your soil’s pH and may affect the availability of other important nutrients. You also want to avoid adding too much of anything to your garden as this can be just as bad as too little. Excess nutrients can also run off into streams and other water bodies causing toxic algae blooms.

11 Free Organic Methods to Add Nutrients to Your Garden

Seedlings

If you start your own transplants at home don’t forget about the nutrients they need. Buying or mixing a good quality potting mix is important to their success. One of my favorite ways to give seedlings a quick boost is to add a bit of compost tea or liquid kelp to their water. I typically use about 5 TBS per gallon of water. 

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Strategies for Dealing with Water Logged Soils

Spring brings sunshine, flowers, and rain, tons of rain. While some rain is great for growing plants, if you have poor drainage in your garden it can make it tough to get plants in on time and get a good harvest.

Thankfully all soils can be improved! Here’s a few strategies you can use to help cope with excessive water and have a more productive garden.

Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are an excellent way to use excess water. They’re great for soil health and keeping your garden from turning into a giant mud puddle. Plant a winter cover crop throughout your garden next fall or in places you’re not immediately trying to plant in this spring. They’ll use water as they grow and eventually add organic material to the soil which helps with drainage.

Go No-Till

A more long term strategy, going no -till improves soil structure to help with drainage. The soil isn’t compacted with by any equipment and the plants, insects, and fungi create air spaces in the soil.

Add Organic Material

Aside from adding fertility, organic material is also great for breaking up heavy dense soils. By mixing and bonding with soil particles it allows for more air space and drainage. As a side note adding organic material can also help dry soils hold moisture.

Subsoil

If your unfamiliar with the process, subsoiling may seem contrary to going no-till. However subsoiling lifts the soil without mixing it or turning it over. This leaves soil structure intact and creates air space in the soil which greatly improves drainage. On large farms this is often done with a tractor and chisel plow or subsoiler but it’s also easy to do with a broadfork in a home size or small market garden.

Build Raised Beds

Building a few raised beds can help you quickly create areas with good drainage. The downside to most raised beds is that when things do dry out later in the summer they’ll require more water. Hugelkultur beds on the other hand offer both excellent drainage and good moisture retention as they’re built on a large pile of composting material. Check out our How to Build a Hugelkultur Garden Bed guide for more information.

A Note About Sand

If you have dense clay soils it can be really tempting to purchase sand to give your garden some much needed drainage. However you’re far better off just adding organic material. To get proper drainage with sand you’ll need to add tons if your soil has a lot of clay. If you don’t add enough sand you can end up with the sand and clay bonding together to form something more like brick than fluffy garden soil.

 

After waiting through months of cold and bad weather it can be devastating to find yourself standing in the middle of what appears to be a bog where your garden used to be when it’s time to sow early greens! No one wants to have to wait to plant or watch their plants succumb to the pressure of water logged soil. Try some of these simple strategies to give your garden better drainage!