Soil is comprised of a mixture of bacteria, fungi, algae, minerals, nutrients, protozoa, nematodes, ants, worms, spiders and a host of other creatures and organisms that can be visible or invisible to the human eye. Actually I am going to edit a portion of that statement, the correct statement is healthy soil is comprised of a mixture of algae, minerals, nutrients, protozoa, nematodes, ants, worms, spiders and a host of other creatures and organisms that can be visible or invisible to the human eye. It is the health of our soil that produces the results that you get in your garden. Yet, so many of the methods that we have been told to use to grow strong healthy plants actually destroy the life in your soil.
It is the naturally occurring life in soil that makes soil healthy. I know that we hate seeing bugs in our soil and some bugs are actually beneficial for our soil, our vegetables, our flowers, our fruit trees and berry bushes. In fact in most cases an outbreak of bugs that are eating the vegetables, fruit and/or flowers in your garden is caused by a lack of bug life in your soil as certain bugs like spiders, ladybugs, caterpillars, praying mantises and beetles feast on the insects that eat your crops (https://www.planetnatural.com/pest-problem-solver/beneficial-insects/).
Yet chemical pesticides are designed to kill all bug life and bug life can and will eventually become resistant to consistent pesticide use which can lead to your garden having an abundance of aphids, Colorado potato beetles, slugs, earwigs and cutworms because of a lack of predatory bugs that control their populations as a result of spraying pesticides. I know that it may be hard not to spray pesticides and nature takes care of itself when you give it the right conditions. Certain bugs like worms are actually gardeners best friends (https://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/soils/biology/earthworms) as worms increase nutrient availability in your soil, improve soil drainage, improve soil structure and their castings are a natural fertilizer that is rich in all of the things that your soil needs to grow beautiful flowers, vegetables, fruit and more.
Chemical fertilizers such as Miracle-Gro are one of the many things that we have been told to use to enhance the growth of our flowers and vegetables and while Miracle-Gro gets the job done, it also has such high nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous levels that it burns your soil and over time will kill most forms of life. So much so that in a few years you have to not only continue to use Miracle-Gro on your flowers and vegetables, but in fact you have to use more Miracle-Gro than you did a few years ago because the soil is dead. I have had a handful of people reach out to me panicking because their gardens don’t look right and nothing is growing and one of the first questions that I ask them is what fertilizers have you used. The reason that I ask is this because consistent use of chemical fertilizers, which by the way are also petroleum (gasoline) based, will eventually strip the life from your soil. When bacterial, fungal and bug life are stripped from your soil it will become as infertile and you may start to see massive weeds take over your garden. Chemical fertilizers also completely unnecessary if you are using compost or techniques such as organic no-till agriculture to restore the health of your soil (More on organic no-till agriculture to come later).
Fungicides are also big problem for soil life. Yes nobody wants fungal outbreaks in their soil or on their plants and by spraying fungicides in your soil you are killing the natural balance of fungus that exists in all healthy soil. Once there is no fungal matter left in the soil, bacterial colonies have no competition and your soil becomes so bacterial or alkaline that not many things can grow in it. Here’s the thing though, fungal outbreaks in your soil and on your plants are typically caused by low nutrient and bacterial levels in your soil. So by spraying fungicides in your soil, you are only creating conditions that can cause more fungal outbreaks. I know it sounds counterintuitive and fungicides kill life in the soil which can cause a host of other issues to pop up.
Bacterial life, bug, life, fungal life and soil organism life are kin to our immune system. They all protect the soil from being diseased, they protect the soil from being ravaged by harmful bacteria or predators and they keep the soil strong and alive for years to come. There are also many ways to increase the health of your soil, just like there are many ways to boost our immune system and there are a number of ways to naturally increase the health of your soil.
Compost is easily made from a proper mixture of browns (high carbon materials such as dead plant material, paper, newspaper, dead leaves, etc.) and greens (high nitrogen materials such as grass clippings, hay, food scraps, green leaves and more). An active compost pile produces high heat which can kill weed seeds and the warm, wet, food-rich, plant debris-rich environment of compost piles attract beneficial bugs like spiders, worms, ladybugs and more who help to break the food scraps and plant material down. Once compost is finished, you will have a nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium rich soil amendment that you can add directly onto or dig into your soil. The bug life that was living in your compost pile will also return to the soil and control the populations of bugs that eat your vegetables, flowers and fruit.
2. Opening air pockets in your soil
Soil can easily become diseased if it does not receive air. Fungus loves to live in tightly packed areas that receive little to no oxygen. When your soil is too tightly compacted it can become a breeding ground for fungal colonies which can turn your soil from bacterial (pH levels above 7.0) to fungal (pH levels below 7.0). Fungal soil is conducive to growing trees, flowers, a small array of vegetables and some berry bushes and it will not support vegetable growth over time. So opening air pockets in your soil will help your soil to breathe and will create the space for bacterial life to come back to your soil, creating balance of bacterial and fungal life in your soil.
3. Nitrogen-fixing crops
Vegetables, flowers, trees, bushes and wood chips all deplete nitrogen from the soil. Wood chips are a great way to suppress weeds and they siphon nitrogen from your soil as they are breaking down. Every time that something grows, nitrogen gets depleted from the soil and as mentioned before you do not want to put high levels of nitrogen in your soil or else it could burn the soil, so what should you do to restore nitrogen levels in your soil?
Plant nitrogen-fixing crops. There are a handful of crops (peas, legumes and beans) that attract bacteria to the their roots that can take the nitrogen that exists in the area and turn it into a useable form for itself, the soil and the plant around it. So by planting nitrogen-fixing crops you are naturally restoring the nitrogen levels in your soil. One thing to note is that most flowers and trees do not grow well in soil that has high levels of nitrogen, so it is advised that you plant only one to two nitrogen-fixing plants in areas where you grow flowers or trees.
4. Proper crop rotations
Crop rotations are key. Vegetables and flowers all pull nutrients from the soil to aid in their growth. So if we continue to plant the same things in the same spot year in and year out, the soil will become bereft of nutrients over time and will never get the chance to restore its nutrient stores. This is what happened in the Dust Bowl, the same crops got planted in the same spot every year until the soil was stripped of all of its nutrients and the soil lost its structure and became completely infertile. Properly rotating your crops will help restore the soil nutrient balance as different vegetables and flowers use different nutrients and can also enhance the structure of your soil.
5. Organic no-till agriculture
This is my preferred methodology and it is one of the keys to unleashing the power of your soil. There are certain crops called cover crops that are not intended to be consumed or used. Cover crops are high in nitrogen, potassium, calcium, phosphorous and other key plant nutrients and they get planted either as a rotational crop or a few weeks before your garden’s growing window is about to end. When planting a cover crop the goal is to let it grow to its fullest, cut off the first flower that the cover crop produces and then pull the cover crop out of the soil from its roots. Killing the cover crop before it flowers is key as cover crops are extremely hardy and reproduce easily and if you let too many of them go to seed you will have a new crop of cover crops growing instead of the seeds that you actually want to grow. Once you pull the cover crop from its roots, you will lay it back over the soil to create a thick mulch of plant-life that will breakdown into the soil and contribute all of the nutrients that are held within the cover crops directly to the soil, hence creating a green manure that restores the life to your soil.
You then plant directly into the soil that you laid the dead cover crop on top of and your seeds will naturally receive the nutrients that they need. Cover cropping is a brilliant system and research has consistently shown that vegetables grow larger and produce more in areas that use the organic no-till methodology.
Maintaining the life in your soil is a top priority for gardeners and farmers alike. When your soil is rich in naturally rich in nutrients, nitrogen, potassium, calcium, iron, bacterial life, fungal life and bug life, your plants will continue to be strong year in and year out and you will have fewer issues in your garden or on your farm.
Michael Forman is an urban farmer who founded Pure Love Sustainability Inc. and teaches gardeners and farmers how to create optimal conditions for soil health and utilize all of the above techniques to help gardeners and farmers get maximum yields year in and year out. Michael loves teaching these techniques and principals to new gardeners and offers no-cost initial garden consultations that help gardeners create and maintain the gardens of their dreams. If you want to learn any of these techniques, need support in your garden and/or want to try your hand at gardening for the first-time, please fill out a contact form on his website