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Want to learn how to improve soil quality to grow more food for your family?
Some areas may be blessed with healthy soil, but here in Tennessee we sure aren’t. We have about a 3 inch layer of top soil, if that, and then you will hit a hard red clay that is horrible “garden dirt”.
Your area may be something totally different. But the good news is no matter what kind of dirt you have, there are easy ways to improve soil quality.
Here are 9 of the best ways to improve soil health naturally.
If you are like me, when I first began gardening I had no idea what healthy soil was, much less how to improve it. But I learned very quickly that healthy soil is necessary for successful gardening.
So just how can you improve soil health?
How to Improve Soil Quality In Your Garden
1. Sheet Mulching or Lasagna Gardening
Sheet mulching or lasagna gardening are just different names for the same process.
This is a very powerful way to improve not only soil quality but also the structure of the soil. The structure of soil, is also called tilth and any time the tilth can be improved, the greater your harvest will be.
Sheet mulching requires no tilling and is great for starting a new garden or wrangling in one that has been taken over by weeds.
The day before you begin, mow down grass and weeds. Then soak heavy with water.
Next day, cover the area with 3-5 layers newspaper, thick cotton fabric, or heavy cardboard for blocking light.
Next toss a layer green compost such as kitchen scraps, grass clippings, animal manure or other nitrogen rich material on top of it.
And then add a layer of carbon using, straw, leaves or other additional organic approved materials. Then the last layer should be aged compost a minimum of 6 inches deep.
As you layer, thoroughly wet each layer with a water hose. This will to speed the breakdown of the organic materials. And also attract “microherds” of soil organisms, worms, beetles and other microbes that great to amend soil.
Lasagna gardening or sheet mulching should sit undisturbed for at least 2 weeks before planting, but longer is even better. If possible, do this in the fall and expect to plant the following spring.
For more information on sheet mulching, take a look at this great article from the Natural Resource Conservation.
2. Create Permanent Paths and Garden Beds
Soil quality or tilth is greatly affected by the sheer weight of our body. Each step you take compacts the soil and destroys beneficial soil organisms as well as their homes.
Your garden will benefit greatly from permanent garden beds and paths. Keeping the paths wide enough to get a wheel-barrow through, but the beds no wider than twice your arm length.
This allows you the ability to work from both sides and “reach” into the center of the garden bed to harvest without stepping on the soil.
3. Plant Cover Crops
Cover crops are a really great way to improve garden soil over the winter. Their specific reason is to build and hold soil in place and smother weeds all at the same time. These crops can be either perennial or annual and depending on planting time, each have their best time to be used.
The leaves of cover crops shield the soil from pounding rains and keep it from washing away. And they send roots down into soil adding organic matter, attracting soil organisms and more.
Many of them are annuals and are killed over the winter making it really easy in spring garden season.
But if it is not killed over the winter, it can be “chopped and dropped” where it is and left to decompose and feed the soil.
Cover crops should be not allowed to set seed. Drop them before this occurs.
If you have to manually chop your cover crop down, a lawnmower or weed eater will do the trick. I plant a barley cover crop in my raised beds each fall and use this weed eater to chop it down about 3 weeks before I plan to plant early spring vegetables.
Here a some cover crops I would recommend:
- Crimson Clover (adds nitrogen to the soil and it an annual)
- Buckwheat (annual, does not add nitrogen)
- Annual Rye Grass
The Crimson Clover and Buckwheat are great for attracting pollinators to your garden too!
4. Amend with Aged Compost
Adding compost is probably the quickest less labor intensive way to amend soil structure and add additional fertility.
Compost can be purchased by the cubic yard and then spread over the soil in the spring. It also comes in bags from the garden center, but can add up in cost very quickly, depending on how much you need.
You can also make your own compost or compost tea that will help too.
This is a great way to recycle kitchen waste, paper, leaves and more. This publication from the University of Georgia Extension is a great place to learn how to compost at home.
Compost should be spread on soil 4-6 weeks prior to planting or in the fall and left over the winter. It will work its way into the soil and additional soil nutrients.
5. Add Organic Mulch
Mulch is a non-living organic material that is spread on top of soil just like compost, but it does not penetrate down into the soil.
It is used to hold in moisture, suppress weeds and it even helps to control temperatures in the soil.
Some very common mulches are:
- Crushed Leaves
- Composted Wood Chips
6. Use Aged Animal Manure
I call aged manure “gold!” I love this stuff! Adding manure to the soil adds organic matter and nutrients and also attracts soil organisms creating microbial activity.
I need to say though, although animal manure is an exceptional organic fertilizer for building soil quality, it does contain nitrogen which makes it “hot” and will kill plants or destroy organisms if applied too soon.
- Chicken Manure – Since chicken manure is high in nitrogen, it is considered the “hottest” of the animal manures. It should be piled and left to decompose for 6-12 months before being applied to organic garden soil.
- Cow Manure – the most popular animal manure in my area. Cow manure makes a great all-purpose manure fertilizer since it does not contain much nitrogen. It should be aged about 6 months before using it.
- Horse Manure – this type manure tends to have a lot of weed seeds in it. It can be piled and allowed to age and if the pile gets hot enough, it can destroy many of the seeds. Horse manure should be aged 3-4 months before applying it to garden soil.
- Goat/Sheep Manure – Both goat and sheep manure are considered a relatively cool manure since they are herbivores and eat a lot of woody plants. It can be applied immediately, but for better results, it is best to allow it to decompose for 1-2 months for better soil fertility.
- Rabbit Manure – can be applied directly from under the rabbit cage. It does contain some nitrogen but the phosphorus and potassium levels are close enough to the nitrogen count to make it the “coolest” of animal manures. Though not necessary, if left to rot for 2-3 months, it is will work more quickly in your garden beds.
7. No Till Gardening
Unfortunately, modern farming is convinced that tilling soil is helpful for prepping planting soil. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Organic no-till farming, on the other hand, is an excellent way to go.
Soil is a living system full of microorganisms, fungi, bacteria and a whole plethora of living organisms. When gardening soil is plowed, it destroys these fungi and bacteria’s and their homes.
Adopting a “no till” garden will allow these beneficial organisms to continue to work and multiply creating a wonderfully improved soil structure. Soil aeration and drainage are also increased from the amount of worms, beetles, ants, and such that are attracted to no till gardens.
8. Practice Crop Rotation
Vegetables can be divided into basically 11 different crop families. Each family will uptake certain nutrients from the soil or will add nutrients.
By adopting a crop rotation gardening practice, you will not only be building nutrients to the soil, but also aiding in avoiding problems with weeds and helping to prevent garden pests and diseases.
Crop rotation improves soil health and increases crop yields by adding increased soil fertility and nutrients.
9. Build Raised Beds
If all else fails, building raised beds will give you complete control to building soil structure. You can choose what soil amendments go into them and even what they look like. Yep, raised beds can be pretty attractive.
But more importantly than their appearance is your control over the organic matter that is added, as well as the fertilizers, compost and natural amendments put into them.
I have used raised beds for 4 years now and know from experience how great they are.
So the best garden soil for plants can be easily amended to improve soil quality. Amending soil can easily be accomplished by adding organic matter. With just a bit of labor and organic amendments, you can improve the productivity and create a really rich soil or soil health.
Let me know if you have any questions. Happy soil building!!