How do you get healthy soil?
Organic Matter is what makes your soil healthy. Your soil should be a metropolis of earthworms, bacteria, fungus, ground beetles, nematodes, etc. A diverse community of microorganisms and larger organisms are good for your soil and helpful to your plants for a number of reasons:
-They break down organic matter to make nutrients available to plants
-They help to decompose weed seeds
-They dig tunnels and create space for good air flow
-They convert atmospheric nitrogen into a form that plants can use
– They compete with harmful organisms, keeping pest populations at a minimum
So how can you tell if your soil is healthy? Here are a few easy ways to check and make sure your soil is full of life and ready to plant in.
1. Look at the color of your soil. The darker the color, the better. Dark soil is a good indicator that your soil contains an ample amount of organic matter. A dark red color is a sign of good aeration and drainage. Whereas yellow, blue green, or gray colored soil can mean that the soil has poor drainage, a quality that most garden plants do not like.
2. Look at your plants. Are they yellowing, or are the tips of the leaves red? Are there white spots all over the plants? Do you have fungus problems, or pest problems? Well drained, aerated, and nutrient rich soil will keep your plants green. Plant discoloration can mean a number of things. If it has to do with the soil it can mean that either your soil has very little nutrients left, that the pH is off and your plants are unable to uptake any nutrients, or that there is poor aeration. It could also mean that you have a pest problem and may not have a sufficient amount of beneficial organisms in your soil to compete with the pests.
3. Check the roots. Pull a plant up that you aren’t going to keep and check its roots. What you will want to see are well spread out, healthy looking, white roots, and the soil should crumble away. If roots are stunted or the soil is clumpy, then your soil is not well drained enough.
To check soil drainage try this coffee can test: Prepare a coffee can by removing the bottom to let water drain out. Dig a small hole in your soil and set the coffee can in it so that the top is a couple of inches above the soil surface, put some water in it, then mark with a sharpie where the water line is on the can. Wait an hour and then measure how much water has drained. You will want it to be somewhere between 2 and 5 inches an hour. Less than two inches means you have poor drainage and your plants’ roots are sitting in water which can cause plant pathogens, stunt growth, and lead to overall poor plant health. More than 6 inches an hour means your soil is draining too fast and your plants will not receive enough water or nutrients.
4. Dig into your soil about six inches and look for life. You will want to count about 10 organisms in about 6 minutes. Look for spiders, earthworms, centipedes, ground beetles, etc.
5. Have your soil tested. Here is a list of labs that you can send soil samples to. They will test your soils pH to see if you need to adjust by adding lime or sulfur. They will also test for harmful chemicals or heavy metals such as lead. This is especially important if you are planting a vegetable garden and have never had the soil tested.
Let’s say that you have done these quick tests and have found your soil to be less than desirable. Don’t worry, because all you have to do to revitalize your soil is simply adding organic matter into your soil. Compost and animal manure will do the trick. Compost can improve soil texture, aeration, keep the pH neutral, improve water holding capacity, and attract more organisms. The recipe for good compost is 1 part green materials like grass clippings and vegetable peelings, to 3 part brown materials like leaves, straw, and sawdust. Keep your compost pile moist but not wet, and keep a good oxygen flow by turning your pile a couple of times a week. You will know your compost is ready when it has shrunk down to about half of it’s original size, the materials you put into it are no longer recognizable, and it has an earthy odor and dark, crumbly appearance. If applied 2-4 weeks before planting, the compost will have time to integrate with the existing soil. Work it in to about 8 inches deep at a ratio of 1 part compost to 1 part soil. You can use it as a side dressing in late spring for a little boost. If you need compost now, give us a call and we can set you up with some.
Manure is rich in nitrogen, which is what your plants need to grow and stay green. Be sure the manure you use has decomposed. Raw manure can burn your plants, contain weed seeds, have an odor, and attract flies. You can either add raw manure to your compost pile, or work it into your soil in the fall before you plant the following spring. Be sure to wash produce before eating when using manure and never use dog or cat manure in your garden. As an alternative to manure, you can also use an organic fertilizer available from your garden supply store. These fertilizers contain phosphorous and potassium as well, which are also important nutrients for your plants.
So, while this gorgeous warm weather is an invitation to start planting, it is a good idea to first take a minute to check out your soil. You will be happy you did when you are rewarded with a bountiful garden later this Spring.
Here’s to your soil health!!