To grow good, nutritious food, one must start with good, healthy soil. We hear this axiom a lot from gardeners and soil biologists, but the underlying question that doesn’t receive enough attention is: How does one do that?
Today I offer some extremely simple and relatively fast tips for how to create healthy soil. If healthier soil means better tasting food, then that means happier customers (if you grow to sell) or a happier family (if you growing only for your household).
1. Understand Some Basics
It’s important to understand what occurs in a healthy soil so you can encourage that health, and it all starts with photosynthesis. This is the process by which plants take water, sunlight and carbon dioxide and covert them into simple “sugars” they use to feed microbes below ground. The microbes then go find a specific mineral or nutrient for the plant and bring it back. Making that process easier on the plant and microbe is what you must encourage.
2. Stop or Reduce Tillage
When you till soil, a lot of things occur. One, tilling exposes carbon (microbe habitat) to the elements, which reduces the organic matter in the soil. Tilling also destroys the established mychorizal fungi connections and in fact makes the soil more conducive to bacteria. Soil needs both of these, but an unhealthy excess of bacteria can have dire effects and increase the population of weeds (which rely more on bacteria than fungi). Anything you can do to reduce or stop tillage is positive.
If microbes retrieve minerals for plants, then the soil must contain those minerals for this system to work. However, just adding minerals to the soil can be detrimental. First, a lab specializing in something called “the Albrecth method” should administer a soil test. (“Albrecth” is a good keyword to find one near you). That test should be analyzed and the needed soil amendments should be added in the proper quantities. Too much or too little of something can tie up other nutrients.
4. Add Good Compost
Crucial here is the word “good.” Compost must be made of the best materials available, turned often and applied at the right times. Making your own is the best way to achieve this. In so doing, the grower encourages locally adapted microbes for the soil and plants.
5. Keep It Covered
Keeping the soil covered with some sort of mulch or plants is the best way to ensure moisture retention and also that the microbes and organic matter are protected from the elements.
6. Keep It Planted
If microbes are constantly being fed through the sugars in the plant roots, their populations and diversity will grow. So keeping plants in the soil at all times or as much as possible will help accomplish that. This is one reason cover crops work so well.
7. Add Good Compost Tea
Compost teas are aerated brews of non-chlorinated water and good compost. They are generally aerated for 12 to 36 hours to encourage healthy populations of microbes. You can apply these to plants or soil depending on the need to repopulate your garden with microbes.
8. Do Not Let It Dry Out
Water is the final key. The soil should never dry out. If it does, the soil microbes can die and then you must start over from scratch. So irrigate even if you don’t have a crop in the ground yet but intend to plant one soon.