How to build better soil? Stop treating it like dirt
The key to a great garden? Look under your feet and start valuing your soil.
“We treat soil like dirt, and they are not the same thing,” said noted soil scientist Steve Andrews, the “Compost Crusader.”
“Dirt is the stuff that your nosy next-door neighbour likes to dig up on you. Dirt is the stuff in your vacuum cleaner. Dirt gets on your clothes, the kids, the dog and the cat. But dirt is not soil.
“Soil is a living treasure, an amalgam of sand, silt, clay, organic matter, air and water, transformed by time, climate, topography, biology, parent material — and us.”
Soil should be alive and teeming with microbes. It’s those infinitesimally small critters that help plants be the best they can be.
“You cannot have healthy, productive plants without a healthy, living soil,” said Steven Zien, a soil expert in Sacramento.
How many microbes? Consider these facts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service:
One cup of soil can hold more bacteria than there are people on Earth.
A single spadeful of rich garden soil contains more living species than can be found above ground in the entire Amazon rainforest.
If you packed all the microbes from an acre of land together, they would weigh as much as two cows.
“We know more about things a billion light years away than about what’s happening six inches under our feet,” said Zien, founder of Living Resources Co. in Sacramento, which provides soil and organic gardening consulting.
Microbes play a vital role in soil health.
“Good, healthy soil is alive with beneficial soil organisms known as the soil food web,” Zien said.
“These organisms create soil structure, improving drainage and aeration. Nutrients and moisture are stored by the soil biology that makes them available to plant roots, minimizing the need for fertilizer and irrigation. They also provide plant growth hormones and fight off pests, allowing your plants to grow — healthy, pestresistant and drought-tolerant.”
Drought can severely stress our soils — and microbes.
Gisele Schoniger of Kellogg Garden Products in Carson says, “They need replenishment more than fertilizer.”
The lack of water actually can change soil’s acidity (or pH) level.
“The less water, the higher the pH and the more alkaline your soil becomes,” she said. “The more water, the lower the pH. Organic matter helps stabilize pH and keep it in the right zone, the neutral zone (in the middle of the pH scale). If the pH is too high or too low, plants can’t use all the nutrients (available in the soil) ... Organic matter stabilizes the pH and holds it there.”
Organic matter — compost, manure, shredded bark, rice hulls, coconut fibre, peat moss, kelp, bone meal and other natural amendments — does more than keep pH in balance. It feeds those microbes.
“Organic matter is the fuel that makes the whole system work,” she said. “If you do nothing else, put down organic material around your garden.”
Organic matter also helps soil absorb and store water. After winter melt, some landscapes developed their own issues. They got waterlogged.
“The most important thing to do when your soil is wet is nothing,” Zien said. “Walking on or working a wet soil causes compaction, making it difficult for water, fertilizer, air, beneficial soil biology and roots to move through and function in the soil.”
For backyard swamps, Zien has this advice:
“Wait until the soil dries out a little and top-dress with worm castings,” he said.
“The soil biology it contains will move into the soil with subsequent rains. These critters will create soil structure that will open up poorly draining clay soils, improving drainage and aeration.
“In spring, when the soil dries out a bit more, aerate the soil. Follow that with an application of an organic fertilizer, more earthworm castings and compost. Avoid tilling your soil — that actually causes soil compaction.”
Those worm castings have an added benefit, Schoniger said. They fight whiteflies and other garden pests.
Sprinkle the castings in a circle around the plant (at the drip line for trees or shrubs), then cover with mulch and let the castings work down into the soil.
Besides being rich in nutrients, worm castings contain a substance that naturally breaks down insect skeletons, she said. But water will bead up on pure castings; they need a little mulch on top to do their garden magic.
“Worm castings are the best value you can get for your garden,” she said. “A whitefly won’t go near a plant that could break its body down.”
Worm castings — rich in nitrogen and good microbes — are additives that can make your soil better.
Chicken manure — rich in nitrogen — is an additive that can make your soil better.
Sand is added to clay soils to improve drainage.
Phosphate, which promotes flowers and fruit, is an additive that makes your soil better.
Meal mix — containing feather meal, kelp meal and alfalfa meal with microbes — is an additive that makes soil better.
Sulphur is a soil additive used to lower soil pH and make it more acidic.
Chelated iron is a common soil additive that plants can take up quickly. It’s used for plants with iron deficiency.
Vermiculite — made from magnesium silicates — holds water and is an additive that can make your soil better.
Agricultural lime is a soil additive used to increase a soil’s pH and make it less acid and more alkaline.