Greetings GA family,

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I made a post about soil, promising to return to the topic as I learned more about it. Unfortunately, I never anticipated that playing defense for the Grow Appalachians meant that I’d have tackle so many projects at once. I was especially distracted by a blog series on identifying funding opportunities, but I’d now like to make a mulch anticipated return to soil!… Ahem.

To recap, my first post closed with a description of the ideal soil—a sandy loam, composed of 20% clay, 40% sand, and %40 silt. I also mentioned that you couldn’t just create this utopia of soil in your backyard by mixing the three together all willy-nilly.  If you tried that, you’d probably end up with some silt-y cement, and nothing’s growing from that. No, there’s more to the equation than mixing up soil textures just so, and before we can understand how to improve soil, our step forward requires the customary two steps back.

Soil Testing

I mentioned in my first post that flourishing gardens depend so much on the chemical make-up of your soil, as well as its pH level. Soil testing, then, is perhaps the most important thing that you can do for your plants. Although you can purchase a testing kit from your local garden center, we don’t recommend that you use them, simply because the process is easy to mess up. Instead, contact your local cooperative extension service, and they will perform the test and analysis for you. (In most places, this will cost you under $10.)

Depending on your extension agency, you might be able to collect the soil yourself and send it in. If you take this route, the best time to test is in October or November—leaving you with plenty of time to plan for your spring garden. To collect the soil, you’ll need a trowel and a bucket. You should dig out a hunk of soil about six inches deep. That hunk doesn’t really matter. It’s just a means to an end, so just dump it somewhere. Anywhere, really. Now, you’ll need to collect a profile slice of the dirt and toss it in the bucket.

Repeat this process six more times throughout your garden and then mix all those samples in your bucket. Finally, you can bag this concoction and ship it off for analysis. All you’ve got left to do is await the results and then add lime or sulfur or whatever magical amendments the extension office suggests.

Improving Your Soil’s Health

Improving your soil’s health is like setting two people up on a date. You’ve got your plant, and you’ve got little microbial monsters in the soil. When all goes well, the roots of your plant release sugars needed by the microbes, which then provide the plant with water and vital nutrients. (How sweet…) And while there’s nothing you can do to guarantee that these love birds will get along, there are a few tricks that, when used together, can function just like Cupid’s arrow. (Phew. Tired of this metaphor yet? Because I am!)

1) Introduce insects to your soil—but make sure they belong there! Earthworms, for example, will happily wriggle through your soil, improving its structure through aeration.

2) Add some organic matter to your garden. Compost, manure, leaf mold—these all serve to enrich your soil. They’ll also help to feed your earthworm friends, who you shouldn’t neglect.

How could you neglect this little fella?

How could you neglect this little fella?

3) Keep on growing! If possible, avoid having bare ground anywhere that you will plant regularly. Living roots generate most of the food for those microbial monsters, and so fallow land means that those little guys will starve out. That means that when you plant in the future, your soil will be a hostile place indeed. To keep the microbes thriving and diverse, practice crop rotation and try to plant perennial plants, so that the garden is always occupied. If perennials aren’t your thing, then plant a cover crop or two in-between growing seasons.

4) Finally, disrupt the soil as little as possible. Although this may seem counterintuitive, tillage actually ruins the soil structure, with its interplay of porous spaces and matter. For example, you might think that water could do a better job of infiltrating soil that’s been broken up, but instead, the soil will be so compacted that it won’t allow anything through.

If you have your own tips for improving soil health, leave them in the comments.

Now, grow forth!