There are a few “must do’s” when it comes to soil health in your garden, lawn or field. Below are five relatively simple tasks that will be elaborated on over the next few weeks.
Five things to do for healthy soil
- Avoid bare soil
- Use appropriate amendments
- Feed the microorganisms
- Maintain proper moisture levels
- Avoid compaction
Use appropriate amendments
Top soil, compost (horse, mushroom, fish, vermi, etc.), lime, tomato food, coffee grounds…the list goes on. There are a multitude of things that you can add to your soil, and every gardener will tell you to add something different.
When it comes to soil amendments, keep it simple, and keep it clean (i.e. no chemical fertilizers, pesticides or plant specific foods). All the nutrients that your plant needs are in the soil. The real chore is making these nutrients available to the plants, but that’s what microorganisms are for.
What do plants need?
Miracle-Gro will tell you that tomatoes need 10% Nitrogen, 5% Phosphorus, and 15% Potassium (and every three months throughout the growing season). That’s probably not wrong, but I wouldn’t say totally correct either. A tomato plant has different needs whether it’s sprouting, flowering or fruiting (fortunately, a tomato knows exactly what it needs at any given time) and unless you’re planting a monoculture of tomatoes, adding tomato specific food to your garden probably won’t help your kale. My advice – stay away from the overarching products.
Compost is your best bet for plant food. Not only does it contain nutrients, but hopefully it also contains lots of really little guys (bacteria and fungi) and some little guys (protozoa), and maybe even a nematode or two. These microorganisms are crucial in making nutrients available to plants. They eat the “food” around them and through digestion make nutrients available to plants. This “food” comes from the compost you add and what’s already present in the soil.
However, there are many different types of compost. Composted manure is one of the most widely available, but can be high in bacteria given the manure. Vermi-compost (worm castings) can be a great option and is fairly easy to find in garden centers. Bio-Complete compost is your best option, but possibly not available in stores (though I am investigating). Bio-Complete CompostTM is a trademarked term used by Dr. Elaine Ingham to describe aerobically prepared compost that meets the minimum specified biological requirements.
Compost tea is brewed compost. Good quality compost gets added to water and aerated for roughly 24 hours, inoculating the water with the microbes from the compost. Compost tea is applied as a spray. On the ground, it will infiltrate the soil; on plant leaves, it can protect them from leaf eating pests, like aphids. Compost tea is a great way to stretch your compost and keep your plants and soil healthy during the growing seasons. It is also something that I hope to be offering next summer.
Effective microorganisms (EM) is a type of microbial inoculant that is lab produced and commercially available. It is prepared from microbial species that are present in nature. Similarly, IM (indigineous microorganisms) can be prepared locally based on the indigenous microbes available. EM can be used as is, or activated (AEM), essentially allowing the microbes to multiply.
Mycorrhizal fungi play a huge role in plant health. By creating an underground network they check-in with plants regularly to determine their needs, run out to the “store” or neighboring plant and pick it up (sometimes in an exchange of another nutrient). Mycorrhizal fungi keep plants well nourished throughout the growing season and are a highly beneficial additive to any growing space.