Keeping Soil Healthy
Soil is a composition of weather-beaten rock, minerals, decayed plant materials and other organic ingredients. All this takes a long time to develop, but can be damaged by our action or neglect in a single season.
Plants can obtain nutrients from the soil using their roots and change them to usable materials to grow new roots, leaves and flowers.
Good Gardeners are custodians of the soil who take the time to replace food and other elements as they are used.
For soil to be healthy it should contain a balanced mix of air, water, nutrients and organic matter. There are a couple things we can do to protect this mixture.
Adding organic matter on a regular basis is probably one of the most important things we can do. Adding compost, cover crops and animal manure can do many things:
+increases the soil's capability to hold nutrients.
+makes food available to plants over a longer period of time.
+lessen the amount of nutrients lost by erosion or leaching.
+provides micro-nutrients that are needed by plants in small amounts.
+release nutrients already in the soil by increasing the action of beneficial microorganisms.
+increases the water-holding capacity for sandy soils.
+increase the drainage of clay soils.
Do not apply fertilizer to lawns until we get a good soaking rain, and for best, safest, long-lasting results use organic fertilizers. The wet soil puts the nutrients into a solution and helps distribute the nutrients to the plant roots to be absorbed.
The ability of soil to drain water is important. But when you read phrases like "plant in a well-drained soil" or "does not like wet feet", they are talking about the plant's need for air. The roots of plants require oxygen and any soil that is waterlogged will be lacking oxygen.
Many plants will put up with high moisture-conditions during the growing season, but when the plants are dormant the same conditions may kill them. By improving the drainage the plant will have a better growing environment.
Another problem is soil becoming compacted by tractors and other equipment or just by tilling it year after year. You will find soil compaction in most soils, from gardens to farm fields.
Tilling the soil when it is too wet will clump and ruin the composition of the soil. This condition takes a long period of time to bring it back to health. To tell if the soil is too wet take a handful and squeeze it, if it crumbles in your hand then it is ready to till but if it clumps then it is too wet. Some people now believe that tilling at all is not good for the structure of the soil. It exposes the helpful microorganisms to the environment and they are destroyed.
However, gardeners may wonder if it is best to till the garden in the fall or spring. Tilling the soil in the fall has advantages over springtime. When spring arrives it allows for earlier planting since the basic soil preparation is done. Tilling in the fall allows a large amount of organic matter to be turned into the soil and start decomposing because the microbes are active currently.
An excellent source of organic matter is the fall leaves. Try tilling a thick layer of leaves into the soil this fall and by spring it will have decomposed.
Sowing a cover crop, like winter rye, is very beneficial by adding valuable nutrients and organic matter when tilled into the soil the following spring. Fall tilling will disrupt the bad insects, diseases and weeds, reducing their population.
Fall is a good time to test your soil and should be done every couple of years. In conclusion, doing all the previous steps should be done the organic gardening way. It's back to basic.