Basics of Building Healthy Soils

It wasn't difficult to find an example of compacted clay soil in my yard.  Just inches beneath that fertile-looking bit of amendment we'd added last year in a pretty plant bed, there it was.  This bed will get lower priority than the vegetable garden; but my husband and I need to improve our soil-building skills all over the yard this year.

Here are a few basics from the instructors at the Organic Growers School for gardeners who want to build healthier soils:

1. Test the soil.
At least three different speakers at the OGS noted that it's good to do a soil test before gardening.  Most Cooperative Extension Service offices will provide soil testing services for free or low cost.  This can help determine soil composition and can enable your local extension agent to help you on an individual level.

2. Compost and build the soil.
Having your own compost pile where you place vegetable peelings, dried leaves, dirt, grass clippings and the like can eventually create new soil for your garden.  Make sure you understand what can and cannot go into your compost and how long it takes for things to break down into humus.  Composting is foundational to organic gardening because this method is about supporting the ecosystem rather than using it only for short-term gain.

3. Carefully add the right ingredients, but minimize inputs.
In addition to plant compost, this might include properly composted manures, cover crops and any number of natural fertilizers and minerals.  Getting the soil test and perhaps working with your local extension agent can help determine the right mix for your garden.  Organic growing methods involve minimizing inputs and choosing a natural ingredient over a synthetic one. 

4. Minimize disturbances.
Tilling sounds like the most serious approach  to creating a garden, but did you know it's not always a good idea to disturb the soil?  The instructors concede that sometimes tilling is inevitable, particularly in the beginning of the soil building process.  But the increased understanding of  complex interactions going on beneath the surface point toward more success when we can let the beneficial organisms do their work undisturbed.  Madison County, NC Extension Agent Elizabeth Ayers said we should not work wet soil, but rather be sure to work the soil when it is dry. 

5. Read more about it.
Soil scientist Laura Lengnick recommends this free downloadable book for extensive reading on healthy soils:  Building Soils for Better Crops.  It's available through the Sustainable Agriculture Resource and Education center.

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