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Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants
by Joan Adam
February 24, 2013

Healthy Soil is the key to your success with any garden.

Roots are the big secret to gardening. If you are able to grow great roots – the top of the plant will likely be just fine. Take for example – carrots. If you plant carrots in hard, compacted soil you will get teeny tiny twisted little carrot things. The carrot cannot push through the hard soil as there is no air in compacted soil and water does not penetrate. It can’t breath or drink – just not a good place to be – poor carrot! If you plant a tomato plant in that same soil – the roots of the tomato will struggle just like the carrot – and the plant will just not perform as it should.

Put that same carrot in loose, ‘friable’ soil that is full of organic matter, and stand back. The carrot will be able to push down into the soil, the organic matter will help allow for pockets of air and allows for water to penetrate down so the carrot can get to water deep in the soil. One happy carrot – not a little runty teeny tiny thing. Ditto with a tomato plant – the roots will be able to quickly grow down deep into the soil, water uptake will be more uniform so the plant should not wilt after one hot day, a happy root system will yield more fruit.

Ok – so how do we make our garden soil ‘better’? Two ideas. One is a built it your self, the other is a buy it new and shiny.

Lets start with fast, but maybe pricy first – buy the garden soil new and shiny. This idea is that you remove the compacted soil in your garden and replace it with fluffy loam full of organic matter that you buy from local soil company. On up side this gives you instant garden. On down side you have to dig out your existing dirt, and pay for a truck load (or loads) of nice new soil. Another version of this method is do not remove old soil – but you raise the bed with timbers and add new soil on top of old soil.

Both ideas work well, issues are cost, disposal of old soil, and work to build raised bed or dig out old soil. But you can get ‘instant’ results. Make sure you are buying great replacement soil.

The other alternative is the build-it-yourself approach to improving the soil. Here rather replacing all – we add soil amendments to the existing dirt to make it ‘better’. Amending the soil is not the same as mulching, although many mulches also are used as amendments. Mulch is left on the soil surface. Its purpose is to reduce evaporation and runoff, inhibit weed growth, and create an attractive appearance. Mulches also moderate the soil temperature, helping to warm soils in the spring and cool them in the summer. Mulches may be incorporated into the soil as amendments after they have decomposed to the point that they no longer serve their purpose.

A quick lesson on soil. Most soils are made up of many small particles of stuff. Most of the stuff is mineral in nature, some is organic and most of the stuff is pretty small. The smaller the stuff – the more ‘heavy’ a soil will be. Heavy clay based soils are made up of mostly small and flat particles that pack together so tightly you get hard soil difficult to even get a shovel into. As the soil particles get bigger – we move up to more ‘loam’ type soils – that are generally happier from a garden perspective. Really big particle soils get ‘sandy’ which is easy to work but then we have new issue of how do we keep water in the soil. Most of the soils we see in homes are clayish in nature.

Ok – so if your soil is ‘heavy’ and probably clay based – what do you do? Our goal is to make the average soil particle size larger – and to do that we add large amounts of ‘organic’ matter. Organic matter compared to little, tiny clay particles is chunky and fibrous. When organic matter is mixed with small clay particles, the new blended soil will allow air and water to penetrate and give roots a chance to grow down.

So – adding organic matter to a heavy soil will solve the issue. Problem now is that we need to add a lot of organic matter – and blend it with the heavy soil. Typically we take a few seasons to whip a heavy soil into shape. Spread a few inches of compost and manure or peat moss on heavy beds and then spend time with a good roto-tiller to ‘blend’ the soil, deeply mixing the organic matter. Really poor heavy soil may take a few years worth of work before we end up with a rich and loose loam type, but that is part of the adventure of gardening. This adding of organic matter should be a lifetime process. Once you have your garden soil nice and loose you may cut back on the amount of organic matter you add every year, but you should always add more.

Now – if you have the opposite issue – and have a sandy soil that is easy to work but holds little water – surprise – same solution – add organic matter and roto-till. Here the fibers actually close the gaps and help hold water and nutrients.

To maintain your soil in perfect condition Stokes offers accessories such as digital soil thermometers, soil pH meters and soil test kits along with various natural root growth substances to uphold your gardening success. http://www.stokeseeds.com

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