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Top Tips from BBG’s Latest All-Region Guide

Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens
by Leeann Lavin
April 26, 2009

Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s new All-Region Guide, Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens, is the first book devoted to demystifying the complex yet critically important work of cultivating healthy soil in the garden—using entirely sustainable techniques. While most soil science books are written for agricultural applications, Healthy Soils is a concise, clear, and user-friendly guide that can be used by everyone, from beginner gardeners to experienced professionals (including Martha Stewart!). This in-depth, easy-to-follow publication presents the best of the rigorous research done on soil over the past several decades and combines it with the practical, hands-on advice that BBG’s All-Region Guides are known for.

Below are five tips from Healthy Soils designed to help home gardeners create the best foundation for their garden, which is sure to improve the health of their plants—and, ultimately, their own nutrition and health.

Get to Know Your Soil (p. 35) Knowing the physical, chemical, and biological characteristics of your soil is vital to growing healthy plants and making informed, sustainable decisions about how to care for your garden, writes BBG curator Uli Lorimer in Healthy Soils. It’s easy to get acquainted with the physical traits of soil using a shovel, some elbow grease, and a few simple experiments. And nutrient levels, pH, cation exchange capacity, and the diversity of the soil food web can be determined with the help of laboratory professionals. Is your soil sandy, loamy, or clayey? Healthy Soils walks you through a simple test to determine the texture of your soil—the first step in getting to know about this fascinating ecosystem. Combining a couple of cups of garden soil, some water and a teaspoon of liquid detergent into an empty quart-size jar will yield—after about 24 hours in an undisturbed location—three relatively distinct layers of solid material (sand, clay and silt) visible in the jar, giving a good approximation of the proportion of these very different materials that make up your garden’s soil.

Learn What Lives in Your Soil (p. 15) Like a rainforest or coral reef, the soil in your garden is an astonishingly complex ecosystem comprising a wide variety of interacting organisms—producers and consumers, predators and prey. These include earthworms, centipedes, and other creatures visible to the naked eye, as well as diverse populations of fungi, bacteria, and other tiny organisms only visible through the lens of the microscope. . . . The bottom line: Create a healthy soil environment and nurture a biodiverse soil food web, and in addition to improving fertility and tilth, you should be less troubled by soil-borne plant diseases and pests. Healthy Soils suggests the most sustainable ways to promote the biodiversity of your soil food web, such as incorporating a regular supplement of organic matter, limiting tillage, and avoiding compaction.

Feed Your Soil (p. 43) Since ancient times, gardeners have used organic conditioners . . . to alter the physical properties of soil (in particular its structure), with the aim of enhancing the soil’s fitness for growing plants. When properly applied, conditioners help with aeration, permeability, and drainage . . . creating happier environments not only for plant roots but also for beneficial soil organisms. Healthy Soils offers readers a comprehensive list of sustainable organic conditioners—such as compost and green manure—and valuable guidance for making the most of these soil amendments.

The Magic of Mulch (p. 69) Mulch’s ability to conserve water in the garden has long been recognized—no small matter when you consider that 30 percent of municipal water in the eastern U.S. goes to irrigate gardens (in the West this figure is 60 percent). A blanket of mulch keeps the soil around your plants’ roots from frying in summer, and in winter . . . from alternately freezing and thawing, which leads to soil heaving and root damage. . . Over time, organic mulches . . . decompose and add organic matter to your soil, improving even more its ability to retain water and sustain the soil fauna that convert them into nutrients, writes Janet Marinelli in Healthy Soils. Learn about the many benefits mulch provides to soil; the different kinds of mulches (including guidelines for choosing the best ones for your garden); and proper application techniques.

Special Plants, Special Soils (p. 102) The mantra of the sustainable gardener is to select plants (especially natives) that will adapt well to site conditions—climate, available light, and soil, writes Healthy Soils editor Niall Dunne. The section “Soil Care Strategies” offers a user-friendly reference with detailed recommendations for sustainable soil care in challenging conditions (including wet, shallow, compacted, and clayey soils) and for particular types of plants (including woody plants, roses, vegetables, and annuals). Among the contributing experts to this section are members of BBG’s seasoned horticulture staff, who offer the benefit of their experience working in Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s world-class specialty gardens and teaching in BBG’s continuing education program. Compact, information-packed, and featuring superb color photos, Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens offers all the information readers need to cultivate and sustain the healthiest soil for their garden.

The New York Times Book Review calls BBG’s handbook series a “brilliant collection of little gardening handbooks.... Each one takes a small bite of subject matter and chews it thoroughly...the mix of common sense, practical advice and, on occasion, pointed debunking...makes these slender volumes do the work of books twice their size and three times their price. And what the handbooks...lack in acreage they make up for in authority.”

Ordering Information

Healthy Soils for Sustainable Gardens (ISBN: 978-1-889538-46-4) is available at a discount directly from Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s online store at, or by calling 718-623-7286. It is also available in bookstores and at garden centers for $9.95 in the U.S./$10.95 in Canada. To receive a free brochure of current and past handbook titles, call 718-623-7241.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden handbooks have been published continuously since 1945. They are the only series of popular gardening books published by a botanic garden in North America. Written by top gardening experts and packed with spectacular color photos, All-Region Guides offer 120 pages full of ideas on how to make your garden beautiful, bountiful, and ecologically sensible. All-Region Guides are printed with soy-based ink on 100% postconsumer recycled paper.

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