Our success in gardening is in direct proportion to the health of our soil. Healthy soil is teeming with life. We may not see it all — since most of it requires powerful microscopes to see.
In order for us to have life in the soil — we have to provide food for it to feed on. The soil life feeds on any organic materials we add to our gardens.
Kitchen scraps, leaves, straw, grass clippings, pine tags, and biomass from cut cover crops are but a few.
Plant residues — like the decomposing roots of winter killed cover crops like oats — are an excellent source of food to attract an even greater diversity of soil life.
Even actively growing roots of perennials give off secretions that are an energy source for soil mircroorganisms (soil life).
Without organic material on which to feed, soil life dies. That’s why we need to continually refurbish the organic material in our soils — so that the soil life will have food and habitat to live and multiply. Keeping the soil life active, growing, well fed and well protected— means that our garden will be healthier.
As the life in the soil feeds on and breaks down the organic material we’ve supplied, lots of good things happen.
- Our soil structure is improved.(For example: red compact clay soil over a period of time can become rich black soil.)
- Compaction and crusting is prevented. (In soils with less compaction, plant roots can penetrate and flourish more readily.)
- Minimizes or prevents erosion .
- Water holding capacity is increased.
- Drainage is improved.
- Nutrients are recycled and made available to our crops.
- It even allows the soil to be “ploughed” (prepared/ cultivated) for planting by the earthworms. (When earthworms do the cultivating — it does no harm to other soil life.)
Once decayed – the end result (also called humus) will hold onto the nutrients in the soil and keep them from draining away to deeper soil layers. (Although definitions can vary — for our purposes finished compost is humus.)
Other Functions of Soil Life
If our soil life is healthy enough — it will protect the roots of our plants from diseases and parasites and even produce hormones that help our plants grow.
Most of us think in terms of the plants feeding themselves, but actually the living organisms in the soil help feed the plants. Sometimes they even take nutrients to plants that the plants can’t reach without their help.
Soil’s Ability to Recover
Even soil that has been badly abused by over-tilling and left uncovered and exposed to the elements has the ability to restore its life-support processes.
Organic matter (humus) concentrated in the topsoil can even detoxify and absorb herbicides or pesticides that may have been used before you arrived on the scene — or that were used on straw or mulch applied to your garden. (You still want to be careful what you put in your garden — but if you did get some bad stuff — decayed organic material, given time, is going to really help you out.)
Free from Disease and Pests
Soil organisms perform all the functions necessary to keep your garden in good health: disease and bug free.
I know, I know — you’re probably not quite there yet. And neither am I. But every year that we continue to improve our garden soil —and provide an environment for increased soil life by adding lots of organic material to our soil — the organisms in the soil can perform their work even more efficiently.
Soil organic material that decomposes to organic matter (humus) is the key to soil life and therefore the key to a healthy garden and your great success.
Organic Gardening is easy, efficient, effective — and it’s a lot healthier.
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Theresa, It is just amazing how quickly the earthworms move in, once the organic matter is added. My soil is teeming with them after only a short time sheet composting and adding leaves. Amazingly, I only really started this after reading here on TMG.
Good Morning, Theresa. As you know from recent discussions, my hubby and I are using worm castings this year to increase both the quantity and the quality of the soil in our existing garden beds, as well as in any new beds we build in the future. I said I’d let you know how things went with it and I’m ready to share some early observations with you.
~ Texture: Excellent
~Water Holding Ability: Excellent
~Drainage: Excellent (though I haven’t yet seen how it will act in a hard rain)
~Tendency towards ‘crusting’: Hardly a problem in beds and anything larger than a 10 inch pot (with minimal or no watering), but the top dries out fairly quickly in smaller pots, unless some type of mulch is used. I filled the pots ahead of time and then let them sit for a few days to see how they would dry out prior to planting, so I had a good idea of what I needed to do to prevent some of the drying when I sowed them with seed and lightly mulched with straw a few days later.
~ As a transplant material: Excellent. Thus far, I’ve transplanted close to forty plants directly into the castings (in both beds and pots) and had no real problems with transplant shock or wilting.
~ Worms: Although there were a lot of very small worms in the castings originally, I discovered to my surprise that much larger worms had already moved into and started working the first bed…and this less than a full week after building it! What’s great about this is the fact the original soil in that area of the yard is very thin and poor, and I rarely see worms or worm activity though I dig there a lot, so the fact there are now so many large ones tells me they’re very attracted to the castings.
Ok…time to go to work. Love the latest article, by the way!
Excellent Sandra. Only we gardeners can get so excited about earthworms — but after all these years I am always thrilled when I see lots of them in the bed and disappointed when I don’t.
Thanks for the report.
Grace – Didn’t expect a report so quickly — but glad to get it. Sounds like you are going to have something wonderful to grow your crops in and I’ll be looking forward to the “rest of the story”.
Thanks for taking time to let us know how things are working.
Good Morning Theresa, This is my first post to you but have been reading TMG since last spring. I grew up on a farm where tilling the soil with a tractor was the norm and nothing but chemicals were added + liquid fertilizer. Worked OK for tobacco and soybeans. As an adult I moved on to a 25 year career in the military followed by a 20 year career in the electronics industry.(Be patient there is a story here) Since I retired last year, planting a garden became possible time wise.
Suspecting time had changed the farming methods, I began researching the WEB. There I found your TMG website and it spoke with amazing common sense.
Last spring I put out a test garden using three raised beds (6 x 3). Purchased screened topsoil mix from a local landscaping supply company. Planted potatoes and tomatoes which did to my surprise very well. Last fall, with a chipper/shredder, limbs from my apple orchard, leaves, and grass clippings were turned in to five large bags of mulch. Worked this into the raised bed soil. This spring I hand turned the soil and was amazed to find large quantities of really large (3/8″) earthworms. Really looking forward to gardening this year…
Thank you so very much for sharing all your knowledge and wise advice with us.
I am delighted to have your reading TMG Ed and appreciate your comment letting me know more about you and what you are accomplishing in your garden.
There is no greater delight than to go out in the spring, pull aside the mulch and plant. That’s it. So I know how excited you must have been when you hand turned your soil this spring!
One little tip to save you even more time — leave all that terrific mulch on the top of the soil. Don’t even bother to turn it in. The worms will do the turning for you.
Please keep me posted as I will really be looking forward to hearing of your successes this season.
Again – great to have you reading Ed. So glad you found TMG.
Hello Theresa! I am re-reading the posts on soil life as you recommended, as I try to determine the best course of action to improve my super-sandy soil.
Does your recommendation to Ed above (of not turning the compost/mulch in, but just leaving it on top) apply in all situations? In my case, I’ve got garden beds that were prepared two feet down 3 years ago but I’m realizing that I probably didn’t incorporate nearly enough organic matter. If spreading lots more compost and mulch on top will do the job, that is much easier, but if I need to dig more organic matter in deeply one time, I can do that too. Your thoughts?
Also, is it better to lay all the compost on at the end of the season in the late fall, or in early spring?
Just to make sure we’re on the same page – I want to start with defining a few words.
When I talk of compost — I’m speaking of already decayed organic material. And specifically —compost that is the product resulting from biological decomposition of organic material (such as leaves, straw manure, over crops, etc) in a controlled environment such as your compost pile.
By organic material I mean straw, leaves, wood chips, biomass from cover crops, roots of plants, grass clippings and even kitchen scraps.
I often wish that I could “see” your place. It would be much easier and quicker for me to make a determination. The more details I have the more I could help you. But since that is impossible I will tell you what I would do based on the limited information you’ve given me.
As I have mentioned in a previous email to you, adding organic material to the soil is an ongoing, yearly process. You did not mentioned whether or not you have added organic material to these beds over the past 2 years. If you have been adding organic material — whether on top or incorporated — then I would NOT bother to double dig the beds again at this point in time UNLESS you feel that they have returned to their compacted state — as they were before you did the double digging. (If you’ve being adding organic material each year, this should not be the case.)
If you have been adding various organic material — you could take a garden fork — push it in — pull back — and just loosen the soil a bit.
The process for improving sandy soil is the same as improving any soil: Continue to add organic materials.
Improved sandy soil will keep its sandy characteristics to a degree and will still break apart very easily. I have sandy soil in most of my garden and it will not hold together long enough to form a “ribbon” of soil. However it is much improved from what I started with and soil structure is much better as is the water holding capacity and nutrients in the soil. Organic material added to soil improves EVERYTHING.
The main difference between improved sandy soil and improved clay soil is that sandy soil needs much more organic material because nutrients can leach through the soil much more quickly than with improved clay soil.
I would add a lot of leaves and other organic materials to your beds in the fall. I usually add leaves on top of existing mulch (if any) and then add another layer of straw. But if you have something different in mind — the main thing is to get it all on.
Some of my beds will be covered with cover crops rather than leaves and straw. After the biomass is gone I usually leave the roots of the cover crops to decay in the soil. I put a heavy mulch on top of that.
There are numerous combinations so don’t get to particular about thinking you have to get it just right. Nature will take care of all that. Just keep that organic material coming.
The reason I suggested to Ed that he leave everything on top is because it would save work and he’s just maintaining the beds at this point. It would not hurt a thing if he wanted to incorporate the organic material.
The disadvantage — especially if you have sandy soil — of incorporating organic material INTO the soil — is that it decays more quickly. If I incorporate my organic material into my sandy soil it disappears way too quickly. Even in the best of summer weather conditions — my soil has nothing left to feed the soil life by the time it’s time to add more in the fall.
You mentioned once that you had a compost pile. If you are like most gardeners — there is never enough. Thus, I would use my compost in the spring and apply it about two weeks before you plant. If you get caught short on your timing — you can apply it at the same time you plant. Putting it on early just gives things a jump.
If a bed were new — I would incorporate about 2 to 4 inches of compost into the top 6 inches of the soil about two weeks before planting.
For an existing bed that has been properly maintained each year — you only need 1/8 or 1/4 inch of compost added to the surface. (Mulch goes on top of that.)
That’s how I would use my compost.
Heather — I hope this will give you a much better understanding of how you should proceed. If you have any more questions — please ask — because it is important that you understand the concept of how things work. Once you do — it will be easy. But know that if you need to ask more questions, I will help you until you understand.
Still don’t know whether to turn soil…very compact clay soil?? Raised bed.
Not good growth this year although better than last year, thanks to you! Not so compacted for 6 inches on top of more compacted soil.
Karen, I don’t know any of your details but from what you said about your soil not being so compacted to the 6 inches on top that you are heading in the right direction.
Did you properly prepare the soil to begin with? Do you keep it mulched?
If you properly prepared your soil, your soil should not be compacted. As I have explained in great detail in my book and on TMG, deep soil preparation and then adding lots of organic material to it “uncompacts” the soil.
After that if you refrain from walking on it and keep it mulched and continue to add organic materials each year, your soil will not be compacted and should be friable.
There can be times in drought when your soil will dry and become “hardened” down past the first few inches. When weather conditions turn again in the spring, you need only to insert something like a 4 pronged garden fork and pull back to loosen the soil.
Also you said “Raised bed.” Do you mean framed raised beds or do you mean beds that have been raised naturally through proper soil preparation?
(I explained all that in great detail in my book.)
Let me know if you have more questions.
Good hearing from you Karen. It’s been a while an I’ve missed you.