Soil is the foundation of any garden because the nutrients for your plants reside in the soil. Even if you go in for aquaponics, nutrients are essential for plant growth. In most cases, however, good old “garden variety” dirt is essential for healthy plant growth.
But not all plants prefer the same type of soil. Some like a soil that is alkaline, some like it acid. Some plants thrive very well in heavy clay or poor soil, while others require deep manuring (sometimes literally) or rich compost.
A good soil is alive, not sterile. Even though sterile soil mixes are good for potting, garden dirt should be alive with earthworms and plant-friendly microscopic life. A good gardener or farmer is a steward of the soil, preparing it not only for the current growing season, but for seasons and generations to come.
Step One: Analyze the Soil
Unless you are importing dirt to pile on top of a rock shelf or a slab of concrete, you will usually start your garden with an existing soil type. Common types include clay, sand, sandy loam or clay loam. There are several different types of each, but the basics are simple. When clay is wet, it will feel slick to the touch. You can mold it like modeling clay (hence the name). When you squeeze a handful, it will form into a dense mass. Sand will run through your fingers. It is really tiny rock particles. It doesn’t hold water, being exceptionally porous. If you squeeze a lump of wet sand it might form a shape, but that shape will quickly fall apart. Loam is often found on a forest floor. It is rich in vegetable matter, and will crumble. Neither clay or sand is an ideal growing medium, but both can be corrected by adding loam or compost.
You can send soil samples to a lab or extension office to have it checked for trace minerals or nutrients. This can be important for growing specific types of plants and to discover your soil type in general, such as whether it is acid or alkaline. The latter can be tested at home by soaking a soil sample and touching it with litmus paper. Match the color of the litmus paper to the chart that should have come with it to discover your soil’s acidity or alkalinity.
Make note of the different types of weeds that are growing in the soil before you start the tilling process. Lush growth usually means a rich soil; sparse growth might mean that you have some work ahead of you. Ask local farmers about the weeds that grow in your beds. Different ones can give you an idea of your soil’s general fertility. For example, if your soil has a lot of mullein plants, it will need fed before planting a vegetable garden.
Step Two: Focus on Amending the Soil, as Needed
Your garden soil doesn’t have to be one uniform ph level, or one uniform type of soil. If you plan to grow different sorts of plants, you will want to encourage the type of soil for each one. For example, blueberries love an acid soil. If your soil tends in that direction, you won’t want to attempt to bring the area where you plant your berry bushes toward an alkaline or neutral ph. But if you want to grow corn or beans, you will probably want to move your soils acidity toward neutral.
Step Three: Compost, the Universal Panacea
Compost is great stuff, but not all compost is created equal. In fact, its quality depends a great deal on what you put in it. The best has a mixture of leaves, grass clippings, and a little animal manure. But too much of one ingredient or another can produce a compost that is too alkaline or too acid. Worse yet, lawn clippings that have been treated to eliminate broadleaf plants can be toxic to garden plants.
One of the best ways to compost is to feed untreated vegetation to a colony of earthworms. Earthworm castings are highly fertile and provide added elements to your garden soil.
Step Four: Applying Amendments
There are all sorts of ways to boost the nutrition of the soil in your garden by adding compost or other amendments. You can use the double-digging method and work compost into your soil before planting. You can top-dress or mulch with a nutrient rich compost. You can soak compost in water to create a “manure tea” that can be poured around garden plants or even into potted plants. You can sheet compost in autumn by spreading partially composted material over the garden bed and topping it with un-composted material to keep the soil in place. If your garden is desperate for nutrients, you can even add chemical fertilizers, although these are not usually your best approach.
The soil in your garden in the foundation for healthy growth. It is also the foundation for good nutrition for fruits and vegetables grown there. Too often, it is the last thing an amateur or new gardener considers. But it is the place where you should, in most cases, put your greatest focus and spend most of your gardening dollars. After all, you wouldn’t build a house without a foundation, would you?