Have you ever wondered how those gorgeous gardens in magazines are so lush and green? The answer, more often than not, is in the quality of the soil. Rich, organic garden soil is the key to a healthy and abundant garden. Soil lays the foundation for your plants, providing them with the nutrients, water, and support they need to grow strong and thrive. Here’s how to build up the soil in your organic garden for healthy, bountiful plants.
What is organic soil?
Organic gardening does away with chemical fertilizers. All the nutrients your plants need should come from the soil. Organic soil means that you don’t use any artificial amendments to help your plants grow. You use good old fashioned organic matter like plants and leaves — exactly as nature intended.
Step 1: Test your soil pH level
The first step in building healthy garden soil is testing your soil’s pH level. pH stands for “potential hydrogen,” and it refers to the amount of hydrogen ions present in your soil. The pH scale ranges from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral, below 7 being acidic, and above 7 being alkaline. Most plants prefer soils that are slightly acidic, with a pH of 6.5 or below.
You can buy an at-home soil test kit at your local gardening store, or you can send a sample of your soil to a professional testing lab. Once you know your soil’s pH level, you can adjust it accordingly using either lime (to raise the pH) or sulfur (to lower the pH).
Step 2: Amend your soil with compost
Amending your soil with organic matter is another essential step in creating rich, loamy garden soil. Organic matter includes things like compost, leaves, grass clippings, and coffee grounds. Not only does adding organic matter help improve drainage and aeration in heavy clay soils, but it also helps sandy soils retain moisture and nutrients better.
Aim to add two to four inches of organic matter to your soil every year. You can do this by top-dressing your beds with compost or other organic amendments in the spring and fall or by tilling them into the top six inches of soil before planting each year.
Compost is readily available, but you can avoid this recurring expense by making your own. It is also a great way to recycle almost all the organic waste generated in the house as well as the garden. Garden and kitchen waste composted onsite reduces the burden on landfills.
If you need a lot of compost, you can source free organic materials such as lawn trimmings, leaf litter, and wood chips from local tree services. You can also visit a nearby coffee shop and ask for their leftover coffee grounds.
A compost pit in a corner of the garden or an open or closed compost bin is easy to manage. The correct ratio between green materials and brown materials should be maintained for best results.
If you don’t want the hassle of turning compost and then lugging the finished product to garden beds, you can try trench composting, where you dump all the waste in trenches, cover it with soil, and then plant over it the next season.
Pro Tip: Add manure. Like compost, manure is an excellent source of essential nutrients for plants. It also adds organic matter to the soil, which improves its structure and helps retain moisture. Just be sure to use well-rotted manure from herbivores like cows, horses, and rabbits—manure from carnivores like dogs and cats can contain harmful bacteria that can make people sick. And as with compost, only apply manure in small amounts (1/2 pound per square foot of bed space) to avoid burning your plants’ roots.
Step 3: Provide good drainage
Make sure your garden beds are getting enough water by watering them deeply and regularly during dry spells. Deep watering is essential because it encourages roots to grow deeper where they can better access moisture and nutrients in the soil.
Drainage is another important strategy to build organic soil because not many plants like wet feet. Waterlogging chokes the roots of the plant and promotes the growth of anaerobic bacteria that can cause root rot. The soil becomes too acidic due to the accumulation of carbon dioxide and other byproducts of bacterial decomposition.
Similar to indoor plants like succulents, which are susceptible to overwatering, outdoor plants can also get too much to drink. Too much water can damage roots and encourage fungal growth. Ideally, you should water your plants early in the day so that their leaves have time to dry off before nightfall when humidity levels are higher. Water regularly but avoid watering when the ground is already wet or if you notice puddles forming.
Doing these three simple things to build up your organic soil will give your plants everything they need to thrive. Remember, it all starts in the soil! You can’t have healthy plants without first establishing a good foundation.