Soil health looks at how well soil functions to support plant growth and regulate environmental quality. These are properties that can be changed through gardening practices.
Healthy soil is the key to growing delicious, nutritious fruits, vegetables and herbs in your garden. It’s as easy as getting a soil test and following these tips to turn good dirt into great earth!
Understand Your Soil’s Personality
Soil health is a complex mix of physical characteristics, including soil’s tilth and texture, organic matter’s presence, and the range of organisms that live in and on it. Understanding your soil’s personality is key to improving its ability to supply nutrients and water to your plants.
Its parent rocks determine the basic characteristics of your soil. Over hundreds or thousands of years, wind, ice, and rain broke down those rocks into the particles that became your soil. For example, limestone bedrock produces alkaline soil with a high pH, while sandstone creates sandy or loamy soils.
To assess your soil’s texture, squeeze a handful of dirt. You have clay soil if it holds its shape and doesn’t fall apart. Veggies and herbs that thrive in this soil include carrots, radishes, beans, and lettuce. Flowering plants that love damp soil include daylilies, bearded iris, and blazing stars.
Add Organic Matter
Soil organic matter makes up only a small percentage of the earth, but it’s an important part of healthy garden soil. Humus is essential for healthy soil. It binds soil particles together, forming porous crumbs or granules that help retain moisture and nutrients. Humus can hold up to 90% of its weight in water. Additionally, it nourishes microorganisms, which break down dead organisms and release stored nitrogen, thereby improving soil quality.
A soil rich in organic matter will support a diversity of organisms and be less likely to suffer major pest outbreaks or fertility problems. Work in compost, aboveground plant residues, manures, and other organic materials to build organic matter in your soil.
Be cautious when adding high-carbon materials like straw, sawdust or dried leaves, as microorganisms will use a lot of nitrogen in their decomposition process and may deprive your plants of this valuable nutrient. Add low-C: N materials such as legumes, immature grass cover crops, or well-finished compost.
Your lawn, shrubs, perennials and vegetables need soil health to thrive. They need the right mix of nutrients, shelter and food for the microbes that dwell in the soil, as well as oxygen and water to keep them hydrated and healthy.
Aerating creates holes in the ground to improve soil health by loosening up compacted and clumped soils, improving drainage and preventing thatch buildup. Aerating also improves grass growth by giving the roots space to spread and allowing the soil to absorb moisture more effectively during rainfall.
Healthy soil is more than just dirt — it’s a large community of living organisms, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms and insects. Providing the soil food web with easily accessible nutrients is important to help them cycle and distribute the nutrients plants need.
Aeration is essential to any backyard garden or lawn care plan. Generally, aerating should be done once a year for cool-season turfgrasses and twice a year for warm-season grasses.
Keep Pests Under Control
Keeping pests under control is an important part of soil health. Control strategies include prevention – keeping pests from becoming a problem; suppression – reducing pest numbers or damage to an acceptable level; and eradication – eliminating the entire pest population. Natural forces such as climate, natural enemies, and barriers – like fences, rocks, or trees – can help control pest populations.
In addition, keeping a clean home and garden can help. Remove food sources, water and shelter that may attract pests. For example, ripe fruit and unsealed grain can draw flies and cockroaches; store these items in the refrigerator or sealed containers with lids that clamp shut.
Regular scouting of the garden for signs of pests is also helpful. When pests are detected, take action as soon as possible to limit the amount of damage. Use targeted pesticides that are specifically labeled for the specific problem, and be sure to follow all product instructions and safety warnings.