How to Improve Your Soil
There are a number of ways to make your soil healthy, ranging from the sensible to the almost arcane. Depending on whether your intention is healthy soil for planting vegetables or if you want to make sure your violets are the envy of the neighbors, this guide will help you get started. Before getting started you should realize that not all plants will grow in all areas. You should check the USDA Hardiness Zone Map before wasting time, money and effort and to determine what plants will benefit most from your newfound soil knowledge. Also, no matter what you plan on doing to your soil or what you plan on planting there once your soil is “healthy” you will need to know where you started in order to be sure that what you are doing has the desired effects. There are simple tests involving a mason jars, soil samples, and water than can be used to determine the consistency, and to some extent, the contents of the soil in question.* As this project will hopefully result in long term and positive results, you may benefit from doing these tests in regular intervals to assess what impact your efforts are having.
Getting Ready to Plant
Before adding any of things discussed in this article to your soil, you will need to prepare your particular piece of ground. Specifics for certain plants may vary, but you can start preparations by aerating, mulching and watering. Adding compost (home made or store bought) can add moisture the ground and can give you a rich top layer that will do a lot of good when tilled under.
Loosening the soil is necessary to allow the following steps to be the most effective and aeration is absolutely essential for healthy soil. There are countless implements designed to till the earth but most generally perform the same job. The size of the area in question, your budget, and your desired level of physical involvement may be factors to consider when choosing your tools. However you choose to proceed with loosening the soil, check first to see the recommended depth of the plants you intend to use. Though healthy soil is more of a direction than it is a destination you can know that as you continue to work water and additives like fertilizers into the soil, you will be nourishing the ground beneath your plants and providing healthier soil for future planting projects as well.
Help Your Soil and Your Soil Will Help You
There are many products and additives readily available at your local “big box” hardware stores and other plant specialty shops. The first additive most will likely consider (and rightly so) is manure. The use of fresh or dried manure will add moisture and create soil health through its decomposition. Flowers, vegetables and flowering plants in general, benefit from moist, soft soil that will allow nitrogen, oxygen and other nutrients to uptake easily to root systems. Of these nitrogen is a key concern for virtually all crops. Poultry manure has up to 200% higher nitrogen levels than cattle or sheep manure. On the other hand, moisture content is typically much higher in cattle manure, so the use of both worked into your soil will be a good start to getting your soil and your plants healthy. Just like any other product, there are different levels of quality control and processing that can impact the amount of moisture, the rate of decomposition, salt concentration and the potential for contaminants. Depending on the application, and because of the difference in the diets of the two animals, poultry manure is most often preferable to cattle manure because there will generally be less problem with weed seeds.
If the idea of manure is unappealing or if it is unavailable to you, there are other things you can add to your soil such as grass clippings, discarded vegetables, and used coffee grounds. In addition to whatever nitrogen content and trace minerals these items contain, they can also positively affect moisture levels, PH levels, and can aide in pest control. As a side note, PH levels can work for against you depending on what you have in mind for your soil. Check the levels and make sure they match up with what is best for the plants you intend to bed there.
Life Feeds on Life – And So the Cycle Continues
Nature is rarely, if ever improved upon and the “decaying materials = healthy soil” method has been used by nature since the beginning of time. Another of nature’s methods that your soil will benefit from is the use of earthworms and other forms of living cultivation. Earthworms inhabiting your soil can have a number of positive effects. As far as the worms are concerned they are minding their own business, but at the same time they will aerate, fertilize, moisturize, and loosen your soil. Earthworms can be purchased or can be “raised” by methods not discussed here. Their activity in your soil can increase the absorption of any other additives you employ, but because of the earthworm’s intolerance for chemicals, (ammonium, pesticides etc) there will need to be additional consideration taken when picking the fertilizer if it is to be used in conjunction with them.
Worms are certainly not the only life forms that can affect your soil and planting. If you take care to maintain healthy moisture levels and provide a suitable environment, your planting activity will likely attract and allow to flourish, all manner of fungi and micro-organisms. Not unlike worms, many of these creature’s daily activities will serve to nourish your soil. The absence of worms or other organisms may be a sign that you need to more closely monitor moisture or PH levels in your soil.
Watch Your Plants Grow
Make sure that your well-intentioned efforts do not counteract one another. Use of straw or woodchips in your planting area may cause the organisms you have cultivated to be less effective. High carbon materials like those mentioned will cause micro organisms to consume large amounts of nitrogen that might otherwise nourish your soil and plants.
Do not overwater. You want your soil to be moist, but not for it to become mud. Set a watering schedule and monitor the weather so that you do not over or under water your soil.
Vary your approach by alternating types of compost and fertilizers as healthy soil will have varying sizes of particles to balance decomposition and absorption.
The soil you start with, as well as environmental factors and your level of experience may require you to take additional steps or to consult additional sources of information in order to achieve “healthy” soil. The test below is found on countless sites and in many publications and is considered by many to be one of the best DIY ways to determine the best approach for your soil. HAPPY GARDENING!
The Jar Test – How to Test Your Soil
- Fill a quart jar about 1/3 full with topsoil and add water until the jar is almost full.
- Screw on the lid and shake the mixture vigorously, until all the clumps of soil have dissolved.
- Now set the jar on a windowsill and watch as the larger particles begin to sink to the bottom.
- In a minute or two the sand portion of the soil will have settled to the bottom of the jar. Mark the level of sand on the side of the jar.
- Leave the jar undisturbed for several hours. The finer silt particles will gradually settle onto the sand. You will find the layers are slightly different colors, indicating various types of particles.
- Leave the jar overnight. The next layer above the silt will be clay. Mark the thickness of that layer. On top of the clay will be a thin layer of organic matter. Some of this organic matter may still be floating in the water. In fact, the jar should be murky and full of floating organic sediments. If not, you probably need to add organic matter to improve the soil’s fertility and structure.