How to Get Healthy Garden Soil

Building healthy garden soil is complex, but it needs to be your top priority.

| September/October 2013

  • Rows of cabbage growing in organic soil in a garden.
    Photo By Fotolia/trgowanlock
  • An organic compost pile provides beneficial nutrients to the garden.
    Photo By Lynn Karlin
  • Young plants thrive in a vegetable garden with healthy soil and mulch.
    Photo By Alison Hancock
  • Healthy soil will help the vegetable garden flourish and produce high yields.
    Photo By Fotolia/Blake Courtney
  • Using a broadfork to loosen the soil for planting prevents inverting soil layers.
    Photo By Michael Focazio
  • Applying compost to your crops annually is one of the best ways to build soil fertility.
    Photo By David Cavagnaro

Soil is the key to health, both for ourselves and for the animals and plants we depend on. But soil “in good heart,” as farmers used to say, is not something we can take for granted. For gardeners and farmers, caring for the soil must always be our first priority, and the process of building soil fertility is vast and complex.

The best question to ask is not “What is the best soil care?” but “What is the best soil care for this particular piece of ground?” Over the seasons, the garden soil itself becomes our teacher and shows us which practices lead to beneficial changes.

Let’s begin with this intriguing question: Why is it that in natural soil ecologies, soil fertility tends to accumulate spontaneously over time, while human agriculture often leads to drastic declines in soil quality? Whether we look at prairies, bogs or forests, we find that topsoil tends to deepen and become more fertile over time. So why are humans more likely to destroy than to build soil quality, when natural systems operating on their own produce the opposite result?

One implication is obvious: The key to soil management is imitating natural systems. But perhaps the best answer to this riddle is that topsoil is alive, and any approach to agriculture that treats it as an inert substance is almost certain to be destructive.



What is topsoil?

Topsoil is formed from tiny particles weathered or worn from their parent materials (rock, of various types). Both the chemical composition of the parent material and the average particle size help determine fundamental characteristics of soil — whether it’s acid, alkaline or neutral, and whether it’s sand (large particle size) or clay (extremely small particle size). But a layer of small rock particles is not “soil,” and it is not capable of growing a crop.

Healthy topsoil also consists of a complex community of living creatures, and each class of organisms has its own strategies for feeding itself, adapting to environmental conditions, and coexisting with its neighbors. Any practice that destroys some or all of those classes of organisms is likely to reduce soil fertility.

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graywolf12
8/30/2013 8:13:43 AM

Good article, BUT your compost piles will be robbed of many nutrients by the trees being so close to them. Our neighbors trees even send roots into my raised beds that are 20 feet from them. I put the heavy cardboard refrigerators were shipped in, in the bottom, but but they still made it in.







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