Soil Quick Start

Soil that is rich in nutrients and life will enable you to grow vibrant plants that will produce bumper crops of top-quality produce. Soil health is also necessary for maintaining the health of the livestock that graze your pastures.

Since so much depends on the soil, it behooves homesteaders, farmers, and ranchers of all stripes to treat it with care and respect. This starts with recognizing that soil is more than an inert medium—it is a community, where microbes, insects, earthworms, and others work together.

How to maintain this community? Read on to find out.

Contents

A Step-by-Step Guide to Improving Your Soil

Step 1: Assess Your Current Soil

Before purchasing any expensive soil amendments, take time to find out what your soil really needs. Simple home soil test kits make it easy to evaluate pH and NPK yourself. Simply digging up a cubic square foot of soil can tell you a lot about soil texture and life. More in-depth analyses of trace minerals and organic matter levels require lab testing.

Read more: Luster Leaf Rapitest Soil Test Kit »

Step 2: Plan Your Soil Improvement Project

You probably are working on a budget, right? Make sure you get the best bang for your buck with a little forethought. Start by addressing the limiting factors for plant growth. Over time you can continue to improve your soil little by little until you have achieved your soil stewardship goals. Many times soil can be improved for free with just a little advanced planning.

Read more: The Family Garden Journal »

Step 3: Build Soil Depth

If you have shallow soils, correcting this problem is the first place to start. On a small scale, you can perhaps consider bringing in topsoil or adding peat moss or compost to add depth. On a large scale, correcting this issue will take a considerable amount of time. Start by addressing any causes of erosion, then build soil with cover crops or by spreading manure.

Read more: Cover Crop Decision Tool »

Step 4: Eliminate Toxins, Diseases, and Pests

Again, this takes time. Chemical residues will leach out of soils slowly. Diseases usually have to be kept in check by keeping ground covers short. Pests are kept in check by generally restoring balance to the ecosystem. The precise remedy will depend greatly on the challenge you are facing, but rest assured that some stubborn cases have been reclaimed by sustainable practices.

Read more: Garden & Orchard Diseases »

Step 5: Balance Soil Air and Moisture

Healthy soil is about 25% air and 25% water, the rest being mineral and or biological material. When soils get too saturated, roots and microbes drown. When soils contain more air than water, roots and microbes dehydrate. The key to achieving balance is to promote porous, well-aerated soil with plenty of organic matter that will hold moisture like a sponge to be released as needed. Reducing soil compaction is important, and it can take many different forms, such as using a broadfork in the garden, planting deep-rooted cover crops in the field, and constructing lanes for moving livestock without trampling the whole pasture.

Read more: Hardpan »

Step 6: Charge the Soil Battery

Did you know that healthy soil is conductive? Nutrient exchange depends on soil conductivity and charge. Acidic soils have more positive ions, while akaline soils have more negative ions. This is why, as soil pH changes, a different spectrum of nutrients becomes available to plants, while other nutrients become unavailable. Many garden plants prefer soil that is neutral to just slightly slightly alkaline. If your soil pH is seriously off, you probably will want to correct it. If it is pretty close to ideal, however, you may be better off making minor adjustments over time with the addition of organic matter.

Read more: What is pH? »

Step 7: Balance Soil Nutrients

All too many soils are deficient in some nutrient these days. On the other hand, too much of a good thing is not desirable, either. Balance is the key. If you know your soils are deficient in particular nutrients, work to replace them, such as by using poultry bedding to increase nitrogen levels or fallen leaves to boost phosphorus. In the case of toxicity, determining and addressing the cause is necessary. Either way, some research will be in order.

Read more: An Introduction to NPK »

Step 8: Build Organic Matter and Humus

Soil organic matter is necessary for retaining both moisture and nutrients, and for giving soil microbes something on which to feed. Humus, what remains when organic matter is broken down, may maintain plant health by exerting a hormone effect. The best way to add organic matter and humus will depend on your scale and what types of soil amendments are readily available to you. You can build organic matter levels by applying everything from compost to lawn clippings to stable bedding, as well as by growing cover crops.

Read more: The Power of Humus »

Step 9: Build a Soil Community

Soil and plant health are enhanced by a vibrant soil community. Bacteria and fungi form symbiotic relationships with roots that boost nutrient uptake. Earthworms dig tunnels through the soil, improving aeration. Pillbugs remove heavy metals. To keep your soil life happy and healthy, you will want to feed the microbes regularly, minimize disturbance of soil structure, and avoid applying toxic chemicals.

Read more: Pros and Cons of No-Dig Gardening »

Step 10: Maintain Good Soil

Once your soil is in good shape, your responsibility becomes maintaining and continuing to build it. Besides feeding the soil at every opportunity, regularly monitoring its condition is essential to this process. Digging up a cubic-foot-square sample every spring will help you keep tabs on things, as will observing ground cover, plant height, and overall vibrancy as the season progresses. Many landowners like to take photos each year for reference, creating a visual record of progress.

Read more: What is Permaculture? »

FAQs

  • Why is my garden soil black?
    There are two kinds of black soil. The good kind is the rich black of healthy soil with ample humus and organic matter. The bad kind is the smelly, saturated black of anaerobic rot. You are very unlikely to mistake the two.
  • What is peat humus?
    Peat humus is a combination of sediment and highly decomposed peat moss from the bottom of a peat bog. Peat humus is actually not really humus at all. Real humus is the structure-less remains of completed decomposed organic matter.
  • What is peat humus used for?
    Although it has little nutritional value to plants, peat humus is quite useful as a soil amendment to improve the texture of soil. It keeps soil moisture at optimal levels, as it loosens up clayey soils for better drainage and acts as a sponge in sandy soils for better moisture retention.
  • How does no-till farming work?
    No-till farming relies on a precise cutting device to slice a furrow into the soil. The seeds are dropped into this furrow, and a press wheel closes the furrow over the seeds. To control weeds in this system, conventional no-till relies on herbicides, while organic no-till usually involves a cover-cropping system.

Essential Information

Principles

Tests & Surveys

Composting

Cover Cropping

Field Crops

Garden