Healthy soil is just as vital to a vegetable garden as seeds, sun and water. Over time, improving the quality of your soil can increase your garden’s disease resistance, water retention and nutrient uptake. By growing hardier, more resilient crops, you’ll spend less time battling pests and disease and more time enjoying the garden.
Soil serves as the garden’s immune system. When it’s deficient or weakened, plants are more susceptible to problems. Just as we strive to prevent sickness by providing our bodies with the right vitamins, minerals, water and exercise, we can strengthen garden soil by understanding its needs and the right steps to take to meet them:
- Food. Soil is alive with billions of organisms, and the more that living system is fed, the more nutrients there are for plants. To feed the organisms that provide nutrients to vegetables, add fresh compost to your garden beds. About 1 to 2 inches in the spring and fall will build the concentration of organic matter in your garden beds and provide a much-needed boost of healthy microbes and nutrients. Healthy levels of organic matter may be the single most important aspect to consider when building healthy soils.
- The right shape and structure. Tilling up soil is a conventional way to “wake up” the garden in the spring for another year of planting. For best soil health, though, you probably want to skip it. Tilling disturbs something called soil aggregates, or the organic glues that hold together soil particles. When these aggregates are broken apart, soil can get compacted and prevent water from reaching plant roots down deep. Tilling to incorporate compost or mulch into soil is fine a couple of times per year, but try to keep it to a minimum.
- Protection. The less of your garden soil you can see, the better. Hot summer sun can force soil life into dormancy, and heavy traffic can cause soil compaction and “hardpan,” or cracking that prevents air from getting to roots and contributes to soil runoff during heavy rainfall. Keeping your precious soil, compost and microbes in your garden bed is a top priority. If you see this crusting layer of soil, lightly break it up with a garden trowel and mulch, mulch, mulch – liberally apply layers of materials like dried leaves, spent coffee grounds, leaf mold, newspaper or dried grass clippings. You can also plant vegetables strategically, spacing them as required to allow your plants room to breathe while still keeping as much soil covered as possible.
Don’t expect your soil composition to change overnight. This takes time, as with most good things in gardening. But if you start considering the life below the soil as much as the plants above, you will be well on your way to harvesting healthy gardens for years to come.