By Sharleen Pratt, Master Gardener
As we approach the reawakening of our spring gardens, I thought it would be a good idea to review the importance of soil maintenance.
How you prepare your soil will have huge implications on the health and survival of all your plants. Two years ago, my husband dug a deep hole in preparation for building a small pond. All the clay, rocky soil was removed. In the end, we decided on a smaller water feature, so I filled the hole with what was left in my two compost bins and backfilled with some of the clay that had been dug up. I hadn’t tested the soil, but through the use of good quality compost, I ended up creating a garden bed that was rich in nutrients and a soil that had good water-holding capabilities. The following spring, I decided to plant annuals in my ‘new’ garden bed. They were fantastic! All plants in this particular area of the garden flourish! The old saying, “Tend the soil, not the plants” is right on the mark!
A well-fed soil will produce healthy and beautiful plants. It provides a physical anchorage, water, and nutrients and allows the exchange of gasses between plant roots and the atmosphere. The ideal soil is made up of 50% solids (mineral and organic materials) and 50% pore spaces (air and water). Water is best at 20-30%, air at 20-30%, mineral at 45%, and organic at 5%. These proportions can and do change dramatically in response to climate and rainfall.
There are 3 types of soil that most of us are familiar with; clay, silt and sand.
Clay is tiny particles about the same size as bacteria. Silt’s particles are 10 times larger than clay. Sand particles are 10 times larger than silt. The larger the particles, the easier it is for water to penetrate. I have lived with both sand and clay soils, and each have their own challenges.
Soil is full of living things like decaying organic matter, microbes, bacteria, fungi and microorganisms. It is very much alive! The world is depleting its soil at a much faster rate than the soil is able to replenish itself. One inch of topsoil that is lost due to erosion, wind or farming takes many, many years to replace.
There are more organisms living in one teaspoon of soil than there are people on this earth. Think about that! Soil is so very important and many of us are not aware of the benefits of keeping our soils healthy!
Here are a few ideas.
Mulching can greatly benefit the health of your plants. Some of those benefits include:
- Improving the nutrient content over time of the soil (depending on the type of mulch used)
- Reduces weeding as it often smothers them
- Reduces water evaporation, therefore less watering is required
- Protects the soil from temperature fluctuations, therefore avoiding the freeze/thaw cycle
- Prevents soil compaction and reduces soil erosion
There are many materials available to be used as mulches in the spring. Refrain from using black or red coloured mulch. I prefer a natural cedar mulch.
DIVERSIFY AND PLANT MORE NATIVES
We are stewards of our land, no matter how small of an area we own. Native plants have evolved over thousands of years and because they have adapted to their environment, they are easy to grow, provide habitat and food to a variety of insects and wildlife, are remarkably resistant to disease and are generally tolerant of many soil conditions. The majority of native plants have very long root systems which work to improve the structure of the soil.
Doug Tallamy, author of Nature’s Best Hope, speaks about the decline in wildlife populations because of the disappearance of the many native plants they depend upon. He would like us to turn all our yards into what he calls our own Home Grown National Park. This would create corridors of conservation for all the wildlife, insects and birds. Take some of the grassy area you have and create a new pollinator garden with some local native plants. You will be amazed at the wildlife you will see!
BUILD UP YOUR SOIL WITH LOTS OF ORGANIC MATTER
Soil improvement can be a long process. It is recommended that you add a yearly application of organic matter, preferably in early spring. Do not be tempted to dig it in. Weed seeds can lay dormant for many years and as soon as they are disturbed and see the light, they will begin to grow. Lay the organic matter on top of your beds and the worms will do the work.
- Use your own homemade compost. Check out this blog by a fellow Master Gardener Fellow Master Gardener – All About Compost
- Use shredded leaves in the fall. I shred my leaves, rake them on my garden beds and leave them over the winter. Come the spring, the worms will do the job of taking them down into the soil.
- Manure, Triple Mix or Compost from a reputable Landscape Supply Store
CONSIDER LASAGNA GARDENING
Consider creating new garden beds without removing turf by first covering it with newspaper or cardboard and then layers of soil and compost. If you do this in the fall, you will have a brand ‘new’ garden bed that you can plant in come the following spring!
PLANT COVER CROPS
Bare soils encourage erosion, loss of nitrogen, growth of weeds, water accumulation and spring runoff. Cover crops create a universe of microbes, mycorrhizae, fungi, and bacteria. By planting a cover crop in your vegetable garden in the fall, you will receive many benefits such as reducing water run-off, restoring carbon to the soil, erosion prevention and pest and disease resistance. Some of the more common cover crops that are used are legumes such as clover, beans and peas and grasses such as ryegrass or oats. Plants in the legume family take nitrogen gas from the air and convert it to a form that plants can use. In the spring, turn the dead material into the soil.