Soil Care: 4 +1 Tips for Soil and Garden Health

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Posted by Julien Stern | Posted in Gardening | Posted on 31-01-2013

lupin, cover cropAs you must have noticed by now, I am mostly concerned with the creation and maintenance of gardens that follow, as much as possible, the rules established by nature itself for its healthy and balanced development.

One of the most important – if not the most important – among the elements contributing to the creation of a beautiful, thriving garden is the good health of the ground on which the plants grow. You will see me insisting on this point, because soil is a living organism, and it needs the presence of several conditions to be able to nurture other living organisms — your plants.

Each and every material we add to the soil plays a specific role in the life cycle of plants by covering one or more of their various needs. The purpose of these additional materials is

  • to provide (or to assist the provision of) much needed nutrients;
  • to contribute to better aeration of the ground, thus helping the oxygenation of the roots;
  • to help with moisture retention;
  • to avoid extreme temperature conditions (heat or cold, depending on the season) that would hurt the root system;
  • to help prevent diseases and other situations that could prove harmful for your plants.

Let’s take a closer look to these components of a healthy soil:

Humus

Humus is a degraded organic material that has reached a certain point of stability in which no further breakdown can take place, thus leaving it unscathed for a long period of time. It is identified with topsoil horizon composed of organic materials, and it can also be described as mature compost naturally occurring, e.g. in forests, and is added to gardens with the purpose of amending soil.

Have you ever seen a cross section of garden soil, with some of its layers displaying a dark brown or black characteristic color? Well, that’s humus.

We could differentiate humus from organic matter by its appearance, which is more uniform and reminds of a dark, spongy, jelly-like substance.

Humus is usually tagged as the life-force of the soil. Now, this so-called life force can occur via a process known as humification which can take place via natural means with the soil itself or by compost production.

Humus significantly improves the structure of the soil. It contributes to the retention of soil moisture by adding up to its microporosity, and facilitates easy access and absorption of plant nutrients by incorporating oxygen into the organic molecules that are charged with transferring the said nutrients to plants. This makes plants stronger and more resistant to plant diseases.

Compost

Compost should serve as a significant and wise replacement or substitution for chemicals and commercially available fertilizers. You can easily and conveniently produce natural and organic fertilizer right at your own backyard or at the garden.

Things to know about making your own compost:

  • Always remember to use organic or biodegradable materials that will naturally and easily decompose for your compost.
  • Be sure to prepare the bedding appropriately. To do so, just put shredded fallen leaves, aged manure, chopped up straw and dead seaweed, plants, compost and sawdust.
  • Keep the compost bed moist all the time. You can do so by watering the area at least twice a day, one in the morning and another before night falls. To retain moisture, you can put shredded cardboard or newspaper on top of the area or heaps of hays or dried leaves.
  • Keep the bedding protected from possible attacks and intrusion from animals, insects and other possible predators like birds, ants and rats.
  • Encourage and promote growth and multiplication of earthworms. Red worms are most ideal for outdoor vermicomposting; they are usually found in aging manure and in compost heaps. It is not advisable to use dew worms or those large sized worms usually found in composts and soils as they would not likely survive outdoor composting.

Mulching

Click here to see what mulching is. Mulch is used to cover the soil’s surface in order to

    • prevent and control weed growth;
    • protect the soil and the root system from extreme heat – that would otherwise lead to evaporation and drying of the ground, depriving plants from valuable moisture during summer – and freeze – that would irreversibly damage plant tissues and destroy the plant;
    • provide nutrients for plants, when organic matters are used for the covering of the ground;
    • embellish the flower beds with application of decorative elements of various colors and textures.

You can use either organic (bark chippings, crushed cocoa shell, grass clippings, chopped wheat straw, well-rotten farmyard manure, leaf mould, sawdust, pine needles, peat moss, shredded newspapers and cardboards) or inorganic (gravel, grit, crushed or tumbled glass, crushed lava rocks or bricks, rubber, geotextiles) materials to cover the ground.

Cover Crops

Another elegant, practical, beneficial way to protect and enrich soil is to sow low-growth annual, biennial, or perennial plants, also called cover crops, or green manure. They are usually grasses, legumes (esp. the pea group), and broadleaves. If chosen wisely, they will benefit greatly your garden. You can also grow several types of these together, and get a more appealing visual effect with the same advantages. Cover crops improve and enhance the soil by:

      • providing nutrients and other beneficial substances, thus increasing fertility;
      • regulating ground moisture, providing shade;
      • being incorporated into the ground by means of tillage, which will increase content of the soil in certain elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, etc); doing this before maturity of the plants will prevent future growth from seeds;
      • forming symbiotic relationships with rhizobia bacteria, useful in the process of nitrogen availability.
          Plus, they make handsome garden features.

Garden soil is a living organism (do I repeat myself?) sustaining living organisms (yes, I do). If you’re trying to grow healthy foods for consumption, you’ve got to take care of your soil. There are several techniques for dealing with annoying and harmful situations in the garden, such as biological pest control (the plants’ wars).

Proper drainage is another important issue in what concerns soil health, and there are several reasons for this: root rot, poor garden image, pooling, and flooding. [Read more here]

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