Home Garden: 5 Steps to Stewarding Living Soil

Image Credit: Steven Apfelbaum

‘We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than we do about the soil underfoot.’ ~ Leonardo da Vinci

1.  Only minimally disturb the soil.

If it’s weeds you dislike, stop causing them to be. Every time the earth is mechanically tilled or otherwise ripped up with hoes, shovels, or rakes, the fungal mat (mycorrhizae) that extends the roots of plants — taking months to grow — is unwittingly destroyed. It also brings a host of unwanted seasonal seeds right to the surface to sprout along with your treasured edibles.

Using only a fork-spade pushed in by stepping and rocking backward, gently aerate and loosen compact areas, adding pockets of oxygen in between. Earthworms usually do this job, but when mimicking nature, less is always best.

Doubt it works? Watch this informative demonstration on the differences between tilled and not-tilled soils by soil agronomist, Mark Scarpitti.

2. Keep it covered.

Mulch feeds the underworld beings who feed your plants .. who ultimately feed you. Carbon-rich resources like leaves and chipped tree mulches protect the soil surface from the effects of weathering (rain, wind, sun) and compaction.

Alternately during the off-season, planting vetch or tillage crops or legumes — ‘green mulch’ — have the added benefit of sequestering nitrogen and CO2 from the atmosphere right back into the soil where it does the most good for future crops. With a little forethought, you can put a little more in to your soil than what you take to nourish your body.

3. Build compost right where edibles are grown.

Even under the best of practices, harvest (for our tables) will result in depletion of minerals from the soil, directly affecting the living organisms within it. Free organic waste abounds .. just look around! These resources are easily converted to healthy, living soil (humus) by the building of on-site compost piles as near to your garden space as you can allow. In fact, building in the center of your planting space is like having a cafeteria inside the workroom, feeding all your precious soil beings. They will find the food .. even deliver their nutrient-dense waste to your veggies, at no additional charge to you. That’s why they call it ‘black gold!’

To build compost by ‘chopping and dropping’ what you have in your garden right where you are, watch this short video from One Yard Revolution. You can alternately and easily build piles with excess materials brought in for the purpose, just like this. Hot or cold pile? It depends upon your purpose.

When you move or flip a pile to cook it a little longer, you can finish by planting directly into the humus, where the compost pile used to be. Your plants will thrive there in that rich, nutrient-dense substrate. (Just don’t forget to mulch.)

4. Rotate crops year to year, companion plant where feasible, and hand-sow seeds in staggered, square foot fashion.

Planting a variety of vegetables in your garden will go a long way toward managing a full ecosystem of insects without the use of pesticides. Even organic ones (like Bt) have unintended consequences to the garden insect populations; avoid using them in any amount! Instead, keep insects in check by inviting predators (i.e. ladybird beetles, parasitic wasps, mantis) to your garden, and work to break the annual cycle of common soil-borne invaders.

Companion planting of edibles who ‘like’ each other not only help them to thrive, but they can help keep insect invasions under wraps. Don’t give caterpillars an all-you-can-eat buffet; stop planting in rows which gives them unfettered walk-up access to their favorite veggies.

5. Don’t water with the (chlorinated) tap.

Chlorine = salts. Salts chase away microbes. Mulch generously as your plants grow and you will never need to water past seed-sprouting! If there is a compost pile nearby, the water that was built into it will get delivered to plants via the mycorrhizae fungi — a plant’s root extension. Compost piles are like loaded water sponges that slow-release through microbial activity.

For the scorching days of summer (like in our Zone 9B) rainwater can be caught ahead of time with rain barrels, stored, then transferred to specific edibles via drip-line, pump-and-hose, or a simple watering can.

Image Credit: USDA.NRCS.org

Healthy Soils Are:

(Click one for NRCSS educational PDF’s)

Full of life. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, mites, nematodes and earthworms (just to name a few) are all responsible for healthy plants. Their health affects our health.

High in organic matter. It provides energy sources for soil microbes, is the ‘glue’ that holds soil particles together, improves water and nutrient infiltration, prevents erosion by weathering, and improves root structure of plants.

Always mulch-covered, or, better, green-covered. Consider these potential environmental disasters from a microbe’s perspective: a shovel rips the ground, like an earthquake; removal of plant residue is like a tornado stripping the roof off their home; unprotected soil gets washed away like with a hurricane or — with no rain — scorched by the sun like an uncontrolled fire. Cover crops and mulches help prevent all these from happening, protecting the life in your soil.

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