Do you want to grow nutritious food? Then the first thing you need to do is to start by preparing your soil for your vegetable garden. Building your soil increases the available nutrients for your veggies which in turn creates healthier produce for you to eat.
But what if your garden soil is less than ideal? Did you know that you don’t have to be content with your garden soil? What you start with is not what you have to settle for. It can be improved.
The overall success of your garden depends on the health of your soil. But good soil doesn’t just happen. And it doesn’t happen overnight. Healthy garden soil is something that takes time and effort.
Improving your garden soil will do more to ensure a productive garden than almost anything else you do.
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Prepare The Soil For Your Vegetable Garden
Yes, even if you don’t have great soil it is possible to improve your soil and grow healthy, nutritious, yummy vegetables.
I live in Southwest Florida where I think we probably have the worst soil on the planet. It is made up of limestone and coral that have been ground into sand. Growing a garden here is close to hydroponics except the PH is off the chart alkaline. Needless to say, I’ve learned a thing or two over the years about improving soil for a vegetable garden and I can help you improve yours too.
What Is Soil?
The first thing you need to know is soil is alive. Any soil that is good for growing vegetables contains enormous numbers of living organisms. It is a complex community that works together. But most of these creatures are far too small for you to see.
Soil is not just dirt. Soil is a combination of minerals (ground-up rock), organic matter (Organic matter is a fancy term for broken-up formerly living things), living Microorganisms (such as bacteria, fungi, protozoans, and algae), and other living things like earthworms.
The microorganisms in soil are very important. They live in the top layer of the soil and it’s their job to help break down the organic matter and minerals and deliver nutrients to the plant’s root systems. They also create webs of structure that actually glues your soil together which helps prevent erosion.
The worms break down the organic matter also. They are one of the best composters of organic matter. They travel through the soil deeper than the microorganisms do, to bring minerals to the surface all while leaving trails that aerate the soil and make tunnels that roots can easily penetrate.
Some soil organisms are not beneficial, but in a healthy and diverse community, they are usually controlled by the good guys. Having plenty of healthy soil organisms is key to plant health.
To Till Or Not To Till The Soil For Your Vegetable Garden?
For decades we have believed that to have a garden, you had to till the ground every year. But here is a new way to think about it.
Your soil is alive and tilling deeply disturbs all those microorganisms. It fills in all the airways they have created and breaks up the connecting web they create that helps keep your soil from eroding.
So how do you prepare your soil for your vegetable garden?
Some people will start out with tilling the first year, especially if they have very bad soil and need to add a lot of organic matter to it. But others will use the lasagna method and pile the organic layers on top of the soil.
But, soil can become compacted just from rain and gravity. When this happens, you can use a broad fork or garden fork. They loosen the soil without mixing the layers.
If you have chickens, you could use them to scratch the surface at the end of the season after adding compost and mulch and they will remove many bugs and weeds at the same time.
Adding worm towers is another great way to get a little aeration in your garden.
The biggest help comes in adding large amounts of organic matter. This will improve the soil for your vegetable garden more and more every year.
Related: To Till Or Not To Till.
Why You Should Plant In Wide Beds.
Planting in wide beds, whether raised or not, is one of the best ways to keep your soil from becoming compacted. Have designated permanent pathways for walking and tools. Don’t walk on your vegetable garden soil! This will keep those little critters from getting squished and they can do their job. It also helps reduce compaction.
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Mulch Your Vegetable Garden.
Mulching is a way to make your microorganisms thrive. Mulch feeds microbes. It also keeps your soil at a more even temperature and keeps your soil moist which those little critters (and your plants) love.
Mulching also helps to keep your vegetable garden soil from getting compacted. As it breaks down it creates a wonderful structure for your soil.
Soil does not like to be naked! She should be covered at all times. The sun, wind, and the rain all will cause damage to uncovered soil. If you must leave it uncovered for a short time in the spring until it dries out and warms up, OK. But keep a close eye on it and cover it as soon as you can.
Add Compost To Your Soil.
Compost is a given – you should be adding it to your garden every year. It is a long-term soil conditioner and adds microbes and beneficial bacteria and fungi.
Compost is organic matter in its best form. It is broken down and ready for your microorganisms and plants to use. You should strive to add 2 to 3 inches of compost to your garden beds each year. (at least). Fall, or just before you give your garden a big rest, is the best time to add large amounts of compost and any other amendments to your soil so it has time to break down and do the most good.
But spring is fine if you didn’t get it on in the fall.
Some can also be added during the growing season by spreading a layer around your garden plants, for an extra boost.
Compost adds organic matter back to your soil that has been eaten up by your plants. It helps your soil retain water and air, both of which are important for healthy plant growth. Though it doesn’t contribute large amounts of nutrients itself, it helps to hold on to nutrients keeping them readily available for your plants. It also helps neutralize your soil’s PH and helps bring it back to healthy levels.
Organic matter is the single most important amendment to add to your garden soil.
Compost is not a put it on once and forget it. You should be adding compost every year as your plants are using it up.
Compost is also not a replacement for all other fertilizers.
Remember, don’t waste those weeds, grass clippings, and leaves. They can be turned into wonderful compost!
Related: Composting? What Is That?
Vermicomposting Makes Awesome Soil For Your Vegetable Garden.
Worm castings are a rich source of fertilizer, and they allow plants growing in acid or alkaline soil to absorb nutrients better than they would be able to otherwise. This is a very valuable food for your plants and it is so easy to make at home. Just raise some worms!
Related: Raising Worms.
Do A Soil Test.
Knowing what is in your soil and what it needs is the first step to improving it.
One of my pet peeves is seeing people tell others to add a certain nutrient to their soil, without knowing what they need. A good example of this is to put Epsom salts on your tomatoes.
Too much of a good thing is just as bad as not enough. Don’t just dump stuff on until you know what your vegetable garden soil needs.
I raise ducks and so you can imagine all the eggshells I get. As a “good composter” I was putting all my eggshells in my compost. In fact, my garden beds were completely flaked with partially broken down eggshells. Great right? all that calcium that my tomatoes needed? Except that my soil is largely made up of limestone….which is very high in calcium.
When I had my soil test done, my calcium levels were way too high! If the calcium or any other mineral is too high it can tie up other minerals that are in the soil and make them unavailable for your plants to use. So even though the other trace minerals were in my soil, my plants couldn’t find them.
Testing is the only way to know what is in there.
Your county extension service or a local university are good places to find soil testing.
What Are The Nutrients And What Do They Do?
Macro and micronutrients for your soil are like vitamins and minerals for your body. You need more of some and less of others, but you need to have them all to be strong and healthy.
This is a very short rundown of what is needed and what they do.
Macronutrients – Your plants need these in the largest quantity.
Nitrogen is used by plants to promote cell division and growth. It is important for green leaves because it helps the plant photosynthesize. It is one of the main components of amino acids. It is important for growing new leaves and defending against pests. Lettuce will need a lot of it, but if your potato plant gets too much it will be all leaves and no potatoes.
Phosphorus is what your plant needs to produce flowers and fruits. If your tomato plant is all leaves and little fruit, then you may need phosphorus.
Potassium promotes healthy roots and helps plants fight off diseases. It’s is especially important for root crops like carrots and beets.
Secondary nutrients are also vital for soil fertility, and gardeners sometimes neglect them. They are calcium, magnesium, and sulfur.
Calcium regulates the flow of nutrients in a plant’s body. If a plant is stunted, it may have a calcium deficiency. You are probably familiar with blossom end rot on tomatoes which is caused by not enough calcium or poor calcium absorption.
Magnesium is critical in photosynthesis and helping your plant make food for itself.
Sulfur is an element necessary in enzyme reactions and protein synthesis, which helps with plant growth and seed development.
Though only needed in very small amounts, micronutrients are still essential for proper plant growth.
Besides your plant not growing it’s best, if your plant doesn’t have proper minerals, you will not get them from the vegetables you eat, even though they are homegrown.
Micronutrients such as boron, iron, manganese, copper, and zinc (and many more) are critical for proper plant metabolic functions. The absence of any of these elements can keep your crops from growing properly. Aziomite is rock dust which contains 67 different micronutrients. If your soil is deficient in any of these (and it probably is) a little of this will get your soil back in check.
Adding Fertilizers To Your Soil.
When you harvest produce from your garden, you are removing nutrients from the soil. Your soil will be hungry and need more food. These nutrients must get returned to the soil.
The advantage of a complete mix fertilizer is that it is easy to buy and apply, but the disadvantage is that one size doesn’t fit all. Complete mixes are often better used, in small amounts during the growing season for a boost.
Adding specific minerals and lots of compost is the way to go when your goal is long-term soil fertility. Fall is the perfect time to add amendments because the minerals and compost will improve your soil and make it ready to plant in spring. If you haven’t planned ahead, you can add amendments in the spring before you get your plants in the ground. Just add them more sparingly and over a longer period of time, spacing out your applications.
The Importance Of Keeping It Organic.
Many chemicals whether intended to fertilize crops, suppress disease, or kill insects or weeds will also kill your microorganisms.
A word of caution. Be careful what you bring into your garden. That hay or straw you bought to mulch your garden or that cow manure may not be organic. Many weedkillers are used on hay and straw crops and are often fed to cows. These weedkillers are used to kill broadleaved plants……like dandelion and plantain and will also kill beans and lettuce and tomatoes….
Water In Your Garden.
Having proper drainage is also really important to have a successful garden. Too much water is even worse than having too little. Most roots will die within a few days standing in water-soaked soil.
Too little is not good for your plants either. A watering system is your best bet for a successful harvest.
Rotate Your Crops.
The same plant should not be planted in the same bed year after year. All plants don’t use the same amount of each nutrient and keeping one plant in the same spot will deplete that area of what it likes best. By rotating your crops you put less stress on your soil.
Pests and diseases target particular plants and will build up in your soil when they can depend on their favorite plant being in the same spot. Sign up for my newsletter and get a free garden rotation guide which explains it further.
Your Soil Is Unique.
Remember, your soil is unique to you. What someone across the country or even across the county needs to do with their soil, may not be best for your garden. Get to know your soil. Take good care of it and it will give you a lifetime of growing great, healthy, nutritious food. Just what your body needs.
Steps To Great Soil For Your Vegetable Garden.
Plant in wide beds (so you aren’t walking on your soil)
When you must loosen your soil, use a broadfork or chickens.
Keep your garden mulched
Add compost regularly
Test your soil before you add anything else
Keep it organic
Rotate your crops
With just a little planning you can have awesome soil for your vegetable garden this year!
Remember, it’s not just dirt. Soil is full of minerals and living organisms all working together to grow your healthy food.
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