For gardeners, soil health is one thing that will determine the success or failure of your plants. There are a lot of variables that make up a healthy bed of soil, so here’s our tips on how to improve and maintain good soil health.
Hands up if you’re thinking about what to plant in your garden this spring.
As a gardener, I’m very conscious that the condition of my soil is going to affect the way plants grow. But why is that and what can be done to improve poor soil?
- Know what keeps plants healthy
- Look after mini-beasts and microbes
- Add plenty of organic matter
- Avoid using pesticides
- Don’t walk on the soil unless you need to
- Remember to look after the soil beneath your lawn
Microscopic life-forms keep plants healthy
Healthy soil is a mishmash of all sorts of things. Particles of sand, stones, minerals, tiny bits of dead leaves and plants, silt, clay and yes – you guessed it – critters.
We all know that healthy soil contains earthworms. They make tunnels through the soil and they aerate it. But they’re only one part of an enormous ecosystem. So enormous that humans are still trying to understand it.
What we do know is that mini-beasts such as worms, beetles and woodlice munch away at dead plant material and break it into smaller pieces. Those smaller pieces then become food for microbes like bacteria and fungi who break them down into molecules. Those molecules are small enough to dissolve in water so that the plants can suck them up through their roots and use them as food.
So in effect, mini-beasts and microbes turn organic material into a nutritious smoothie that feeds plants and helps to keep your soil healthy.
How to Keep the Soil Ecosystem Healthy?
Without mini-beasts and microbes, we would constantly need to feed plants with chemical fertilisers to keep them healthy. That’s what things like hydroponics are all about. They’re great in their own way, but they do need a lot of technical expertise and a lot of monitoring to keep your soil healthy year-round.
I love my garden, I really do, but I don’t have time to check everything in it every day. I’d rather encourage Mother Nature to do as much of the work as she can to keep my soil healthy. I’ll just do what I can to tweak and tidy.
Encouraging Mother Nature to feed my plants, means giving her the tools to do so. In other words, improving soil health by getting the soil in optimum condition for microbes to thrive.
What do soil microbes need to improve soil health?
- Organic matter
- Minibeasts to make organic matter manageable
Introducing organic matter to improve soil quality
When I was little, my grandad used to grow nearly all of the fruit and veg for Nanny’s kitchen. His garden was amazingly productive and fed with well-rotted manure and with compost.
I’m lucky to be married to a farmer. I have enough room for a manure heap in my garden and I can put it far enough away from the neighbours’ fence to avoid conflict. I don’t know anyone else that lucky. Stinky manure heaps would probably be accepted on allotment sites, but not in urban gardens. Pooh!
Next best thing is to compost your grass clippings, garden waste and veg peelings. It does take a long time though and you don’t get much compost out of it either.
Another good way is to buy in some bark mulch or some nutrient rich soil.
I use bark mulch around my raspberry canes and fruit trees. It keeps the weeds under control, keeps moisture in the soil and breaks down slowly over time, adding nutrients to the soil as it does so.
I also use it around perennial plants in the flower borders.
Nutrient-rich soil gives a great start to a new garden. Most of my garden has good soil. But when I started using raised beds, I didn’t want to dig a big hole in the garden to get the soil to fill them. So I bought some good quality topsoil and I’ve barely looked back.
The same soil gets put in the bottom of seed drills when I’m sowing carrots and the like in the polytunnel. I just feel it gets the seedlings off to a good start.
Improving the health of the soil under your lawns
For the lawn – the soil beneath the lawn isn’t accessible. So adding compost isn’t really an option. Instead I apply a good quality lawn feed every 6 weeks or so. And in autumn time, I scarify, aerate and topdress the lawn to improve soil structure and all round soil health.
Where to buy soil improvers?
I prefer to order online and have products delivered to the house. That way I can buy bulk bags which are better value for money and don’t generate lots of waste packaging.
Doing the spreading, mulching, digging in February or early March leaves me free to tend seeds and young plants as they start to grow. (Plus it helps me burn off the Christmas chocolate that seems to sit on my hips forever!)
These are soils, mulches and lawn feeds that I’ve used successfully in the past.
Nutrient-rich topsoil. This one is particularly easy to work with and I love the deep dark colour of it. It’s perfect in raised beds and planters.
Mulch. It’s a nice consistency and spread around my raspberry canes lasts 3-4 years if it’s not disturbed too often.
Lawn Feed. Highly recommended! Works a treat.