The Care and Feeding of Soil




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If there is one thing that is the secret to good gardening, it is soil. Soil is more important than what varieties of plants you choose to grow, more important than planting and propagation techniques, and more important than weed control or cultivation. A big mistake beginning gardeners often make is to spend their budget of money, time, and energy on plants, with only brief or perfunctory attention to the soil.

Here in northern New Mexico, March and April is the time for working the soil in preparation for planting in May and June. It's important to give soil preparation a lot of your attention now, and not to rush or cut corners. You'll be thankful for your efforts this summer.

I always remember something I read when I first began organic gardening, decades ago: Feed the soil, not the plants. Synthetic chemical fertilizers can give plants a quick shot of energy, but they harm the soil over the long term, leading to a cycle of ever-escalating chemical use. Creating healthy soil takes more time and attention from the gardener, but it is healthier for the plants we grow, for the environment, and for our spiritual well being.

So how does one feed the soil? There are two things to think about: nutrients and structure.

Nutrients are the elements that plants draw from the soil through their roots and use to grow. The three most important are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Of these, potassium is rarely a concern in New Mexico (or most of the western US). Arid soils are often lacking in nitrogen, and phosphorus can be in short supply as well. Synthetic chemical fertilizers put these elements into the water almost instantly, which is why they can produce a sudden change in the plants (and why they can also harm the plants if too much is used). After the initial jolt, they drain away with the water and are gone. Organic gardeners use compost or natural minerals to provide the nutrients plants need. These release their nutrients very gradually, over time, so that there is always some available to the plants whenever they need it.

The structure of the soil is at least as important as the nutrients it contains. Most plant roots require a soil that is strong enough to anchor them, and that holds both water and air. Sandy soils are made of relatively large grains that are very bad at holding water. (The water easily flows down between the sand grains, so the sand is soon dry again.) Clay soils are made of such tiny particles that they pack together with almost no air space between them. These soils hold onto water well, but without air the plant roots cannot breathe and may literally rot in the soggy clay. Wonderfully, the cure for both types of soil is the same: organic matter!

Organic matter (peat moss or compost from plant matter or animal manure) is fibrous and light, improving sandy soils by providing lots of surfaces for water to cling to, and improving clay soils by breaking up the dense clay and creating numerous tiny air pockets.

If you do nothing else when making a new garden, do this: cover the ground with a thick layer of peat moss or compost and mix it in to the top foot or so of the soil. And I do mean a thick layer: at least 2 inches, and preferably more like 4. This is guaranteed to improve the texture of the soil, and will provide some nutrients as well. It's an investment in the future health of the soil, too. It doesn't disappear in a few weeks like synthetic fertilizer. The benefits will last for years. Soils rich in organic matter also attract and delight earthworms, who work tirelessly aerating and conditioning the soil, even when you're not around!

If you want to provide a little more nutrients to the soil than peat moss or ordinary compost does, there are organic products you can apply for that purpose. Bone meal and blood meal are often used by organic gardeners, but we chose not to use these in our garden, because they come from the killing of animals. We used rock phosphate to provide phosphorus, and cottonseed meal for nitrogen. These are both very rich in their respective nutrients, so not a lot is needed - just a good dusting on top of the soil before digging in does the job.

Digging all this stuff into your soil also provides a good opportunity to remove rocks, break up clumps, hunt for 20-year-old bottlecaps, and generally transform a plot of earth into a garden. I also install a watering system at this time. I buy long soaker hoses (they are made from recycled tires), and bury them a couple inches below the surface, snaking through the garden. Whenever the garden needs water, I send a very slow flow through the soaker hose, which delivers water to the plant roots gradually over a period of many hours. The concept is similar to drip irrigation, but there is much less to fuss with, and the hoses are actually down under the soil surface, so there is virtually no loss of water to evaporation, and no unsightly irrigation mechanics above ground.

Once a garden has been started in this way, with lots of organic matter mixed in, it is easy to maintain its health from year to year. A backyard compost bin provides fresh organic matter when new plants are added in subsequent years, and the earthworms do their part too. Some people are very intense about composting, buying special equipment and making sure they have just the right mix of different kinds of material in their compost at any given moment. I'm more laid back. I'm in no great rush to produce compost as quickly and efficiently as possible. Last year's pile is usually ready to use after it's been through a winter and a spring thaw . . . just like last year's leaves go back to the soil in nature.

Once soil is healthy, it takes care of itself. Earthworms are just one particularly visible member of the community of animals, plants, and microorganism that live and grow in a healthy soil. They all contribute to keeping the soil rich and vital.

Many of our soils have been damaged by overgrazing, industrial agriculture, or years of indifferent treatment by homeowners. Planting a garden the right way, by first restoring the soil, makes a lasting contribution to the ecological health of the place where we live.

In the Garden is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2008 Tom Waters