If anyone ever asks you what the magic is in your garden – why you can raise so many healthy, happy plants, tell them it’s in the dirt.
Fall is not the time that most people think about making their soil better but it should be because this is the easiest time of the year to enrich your garden plot and give all of the plants you are planning to raise next summer a really solid foundation in their lives.
If you garden, you know that soil counts. You also know that you don’t have to have perfect soil to get started. I started in pure, clay silt! In fact, the dirt in our yard was so soft that when we planted a 3-year-old maple tree, we had to tether it to our lawn tractor for a year to keep it from falling over.
The soil in my garden was an absolute disaster. But I just kept adding composted soil from my bins, grass clippings (worth all the work to rake up and save), newspaper and straw. And my soil just kept getting better.
Today, the soil in my garden is dark, loamy, rich and sweet-smelling and I didn’t have to spend a dime to get it. All I did was add organic matter and let it rot in place. Voila! Soil any gardener would kill for.
So, what is soil, anyway?
According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), soil is the, “…unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants. It is the unconsolidated mineral or organic matter on the surface of the Earth that has been subjected to and shows effects of genetic and environmental factors of climate including water and temperature effects, and macro- and microorganisms, conditioned by relief, acting on parent material over a period of time.”
What a definition!
Bottom line for gardeners, soil is NOT the stuff you buy in bags at your local big box store. It is the stuff we walk on, the stuff plants, bushes and trees sit in. Soil is the stuff we start our seeds in, transplant our baby plants into and set our ready-to-grow plants into in our gardens.
Soil is the place that harbors worms and micro-organisms that enrich the earth in our veggie plots and make our plants hardy and disease resistant.
How do you make good soil? How do you keep it good once it’s enriched?
Add organic matter.
Wow, that was easy. And it really, really is easy. The single most important way to improve soil conditions is to add organic matter- compost, grass clippings, straw, newspaper, straw – to the garden and letting it break down.
Right about here, a lot of gardeners might say, “You can’t just dump it in the garden and leave it. You have to, “…till it in.”
You might want to use a large fork (not out of the silverware drawer but one with 4 tines and a big wooden handle). It’s called a deep spader and generally has 4 big tines and a top bar you can stand on to drive the tines into the dirt.
The spader loosens soil to a depth of 12” to 16″, allowing garden roots to reach deep for nutrients and moisture.
There are two advantages of using a spader instead of a roto-tiller:
- The spader breaks up rather than tears up the soil, so that your surface organic matter is not buried and that layer of micro-organisms and beneficial fungi does not get destroyed. A tiller rips into the earth, scatters and mixes the top layer into the deeper soil and disturbs the eco-system that helps get and keep soil health.It also chops up worms which, contrary to the popular opinion, do not regenerate. Cut one in half and you have a dead worm. And worms are vital to your soil’s health. They keep it soft, they regurgitate it, enrich it.
- The spader is a whole lot cheaper than a good tiller. The top-of-the-line spader will cost you just over $200. A top-of-the-line rototiller, more than $2000.
By the way, DON’T till…unless you have to. I like this advice because, frankly, tilling is pretty hard work. But the real reason not to till is more important than the relief.
Tilling destroys the micro-culture in the top 12 inches of soil. It’s this micro culture that harbors beneficial nematodes and bacteria. Also, if you have a good worm population, you will do some real damage if you till.
Another bit of advice that a lot of people will give you is that you need to analyze your soil, have it tested to find out just what kind of shape it’s in. You can do that. Most Agricultural Extension offices will test a soil sample if you drop it off at their offices and the charge usually nominal.
Or you can test at home. There are a couple of ways. You may know about the litmus test from high school chemistry. Get a litmus test kit. Follow the directions, dip the litmus strip and the paper will tell you red or blue – acid or alkalai.
I never got mine tested. I just started throwing organic material at the ground, layering on the straw and grass and sat back and watched nature do all the work. But if you’re new to gardening or if you feel you need to know how good or bad your soil is, by all means, test.
Want to know the easiest method of all? Scoop two soil samples, in two separate containers. Add ½ c vinegar to one, add ½ water & baking soda to the other. If vinegar one bubbles it’s alkaline, if other bubbles it’s acidic.
If you’re really in to the science of dirt, a soil analysis will tell you exactly what the pH of your soil is – how acid it is or how alkaline it is. The pH Scale runs from 0, or pure acid, to 14, or pure alkaline. You really don’t want either extreme. In fact, most vegetables and fruits do well somewhere in the mid-range of the scale – between 5.0 and 7.0.
Once you get the results of your test, you might have to make some soil amendments to move it up or down on the pH scale. How you make those changes is dependent on the so-called texture and structure of your soil. Testing also gives you information about both.
Texture means how much clay, sand, or loam is in the soil. Structure relates to how the soil acts when you squeeze in the palm of your hand. Smooth and slick means too much silt. Sticky and forms a ball, too much clay. Too sandy? It will feel gritty.
You can go into a whole lot of gyrations to try to find out just how good your soil is or your could do it the easy way. Just keep tossing compost – really rich loamy earth, grass clippings, newsprint and straw into your garden and watch the soil take on a life of its own.
Dirt is important. And it deserves consideration, respect and a bit of help but you don’t have to spend a lot of money to change your dirt into black gold. As long as I do no harm — no chemicals and not too much roughing up –and add organic matter, dirt will pretty much take care of itself.
Frankly, I’d rather read about dirt than worry about it. I have two favorite books about dirt.
Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth
Written by William Bryant Logan, this book is my favorite. It is a book woven by a storyteller, one who draws you into what should be a short story about the very stuff we walk on and makes you hungry for more stories, more information, more pages.
I loved this book from the very first story about life beginning in the bed of a deserted pick up truck to the very end when Logan talks about earth and life and civilizations before us. So did the editors at Publisher’s Weekly. Here’s their review.
“Logan looks at soil formation and development. His topics range from quarries and the foundations of cathedrals to graveyards and earthworms, from husbandry in ancient Rome to composting in Florida. Logan pays tribute to the dung beetle as a symbol of renewal; he notes that dirt is the source of many drugs that work against infectious diseases (penicillin, streptomycin). He discusses the many forms of clay and the agricultural practices of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and the Iroquois. Dirt is a natural history of the soil and our connection with it. “
Holy Shit: Managing Manure To Save Mankind
This book by Greg Logsdon is also about dirt but in a little more primordial form. Logsdon talks about manure – what it is, why it’s important, why all of us should become just a little bit more interested in how to make manure work for us in our overly chemical world.
Logsdon is a story teller too but he is more anecdotal than Logan and a bit more “…down to earth.”
Publisher’s Weekly offered this review: Common sense and just the right amount of folksy humor make this treatise on feces a pleasure to read whether or not you’ve ever knowingly come within 50 miles of a compost heap.
Logsdon, a blogging farmer in Ohio, offers lots of clear DIY instructions for utilizing waste, draws from his boyhood experience during the days of the privy and his Amish neighbors. Ultimately, the real coup here is that this book overcomes the yuck factor and illustrates how, as with many things American, we’ve taken a natural, healthy, efficient system and replaced it with something expensive, toxic and marketable –chemical fertilizers.
So while your out puttering and putting your garden to bed, think about adding some organic material to get your soil ready for next year’s planting.