Chances are you cannot choose where your garden will be, and you will end up using the soil you have! Considering this, you only have two options. Option 1 - Learn how to use the earth you have! Option 2 - Attempt to improve the quality of soil to make it suitable for your needs! Either way, this Intro to Soil will give you the tools necessary to choose the option that works best for you!
What is Soil?
Soil goes by many names including, dirt, mud, topsoil, earth, and my personal favourite, worm turds. Depending on your location, your soil can be a mixture of blackish-grey and may crumble in clumps, or maybe have a red tinge and be a bit more sticky if your area is rich in iron. Not to mention the make-up of your soil could vary just a few meters away in your backyard. Earth is a complex mishmash of constantly changing components including, Organic Matter, Minerals, and Living Organisms.
The first thing I want to discuss in our intro to soil is organic matter. Organic matter is just a simplified term to describe all the formerly living, broken-up things that have spread across your garden. When every Plant, Animal, and Insect dies, they broke up into smaller pieces, and some end up in your soil. You will rarely find natural earth made up of more than 1 or 2% organic matter. However, it seems to have a sizable impact on supporting plant life by gradually releasing beneficial elements.
If you consider what organic matter is, then it makes sense that it is so important. Logically, it would already have most if not all the elements required to grow life.
Organic matter has many great qualities including, the ability to hold water, nutrients from fertilizers, and making the soil less dense. All these traits make the soil a great friend to your plants. It allows them to drink, collect nutrients, and grow freely in the loose ground. If you find your soil lacking organic matter, try not to add death things like leaves or wood chips to your garden. Try adding recently cut grass, manure, or coffee grounds. However, the best thing to do is take all of those things and blend them into compost. Visit our page on composting HERE.
If you choose not to start composting, you can head to your Local Garden Center and buy bags of organic matter, as well as contact a farmer for manure. These options can be a little pricey but are a lot less manual labour. There is no limit to how much organic matter you can add to your soil safely. Check out our page on creating a garden bed HERE for the proper method of adding organic matter.
The second topic I'd like to discuss in our intro to soil is minerals. 90-99% of the materials in your soil were at one-time rock. Over millions of years, wind, water, freezing, and thawing crushed the rocks into three distinct categories, Sand, Silt, and Clay. You can tell the primary component of your soil by rubbing it between two fingers. Coarse then it is sand, gritty is silt, and sticky would be clay. There are other methods to determine your soil by check with your Local Garden Store.
Hard, dead rocks hardly seem like an essential component for growing plants short of a medium for them to grow in. Mineral particles in the soil have many essential elements that all living things require to develop. You will also find clay and silt, to a lesser extent, play a vital role concerning water availability and how well any fertilizer you apply works. Clay particles are tiny and numerous, allowing them to hold onto the fertilizers and water for your plants. This holding ability allows a buffer for your plants to draw from between waterings and fertilizing.
Considering all plants have different needs, there is no ideal mixture of sand, silt, and clay for all vegetables. You could spend a lot of time, money, and energy trying to improve your soil, but the best way to improve your soil is to increase organic matter content.
The final topic I would like to discuss in our intro to soil is living organisms. Soil may not be alive itself, but the best earth for growing vegetables contains an untold number of living organisms. However, most of these creatures are far too small for you to see. Bacteria are the most abundant, closely followed by Fungi, with a small amount of other microscopic life forms. These creatures breakdown the dead things, making nutrients available for plant growth.
Less numerous but no less important are the creatures like earthworms, insects, and small mammals. These creatures help recycle nutrients, not to mention digging tunnels for water and air to move through the soil. Even plants themselves play a vital role in soil quality.
Legumes, a group that includes Beans and Peas, pull nitrogen from the air and into the soil, making it available for organisms to use. All plants put roots through the ground, and when they rot and decay, the channels help with air and water movement. The deepest roots also help bring nutrients up from very deep in the ground.
Soil Health & Soil Erosion
To touch on one more thing in our intro to soil. Soil is not just a place for you to stick your plants, as discussed above. While it is necessary to disturb the soil for planting, turning, and moving, you must expect soil loss and degradation over time. Below you will find a couple of simple rules to follow for long term soil health;
- Whenever you harvest produce, remember, you are removing nutrients from the garden. Anything removed should be replaced through a combination of Soil Amendments, Fertilizer, and Mulch.
- Bare soil and organic matter are vulnerable to erosion. Erosion is the removal of matter via blowing wind or flowing water. Avoid this by maximizing plant coverage, mulching, and covering your gardens and flower beds over winter.
Hopefully, this Intro to Soil has brought you some insight into the medium you're working. Any questions, contact us HERE.