As landowners and gardeners, the single most important task we have is to support and create healthy soil. Healthy soil is the key to healthy plants which leads to human health and vitality.
There are many reasons for ensuring your soil is the best it can be but here are 3 that stand out.
Pest free plants
Healthy soil contains fungi that release biochemicals that stimulate plant immunity which means less pest control through insects or chemicals. This is good news for both us who want healthy plants and the soil that need not be drowned in chemical pesticides.
Human endeavour has released 467 billion tonnes of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere. To understand the significance of this we need to understand the carbon cycle. The amount of carbon on earth is finite. Carbon can be found in 3 places: the soil, living organisms and the atmosphere. In the soil it aids life. In the atmosphere it forms a thick blanket that warms our earth melting ice caps, bleaching coral reefs, killing krill and plankton. The result is flooding, dwindling food sources for the majority of all living organisms and reduced oxygen for a healthy breathable environment. Our best hope to reverse climate change is to get as much carbon back into the soil as possible. Here is where landowners and gardeners can step into the carbon cycle and sequester carbon, putting it back into the soil and in so doing make a positive contribution to climate change.
All life is dependant on 45 cm of topsoil in which all our food is grown. Depleted poor soil simply blows away during storms, leaving us with less and less of this life-giving layer. Healthy soil does not get blown into the oceans by the wind but is anchored through humus and plant life.
Healthy soil is rich in humus. Humus is created by micro-organisms in the soil. It is the glue that holds all the particles together. In addition, it has 3 very important functions. Firstly, it stores carbon which as we discussed is best stored in the soil where it creates food for the micro-organisms. Secondly, humus holds 100 times its weight in water and is by far a better place to keep water than in dams where it evaporates and is then unavailable to living organisms and plants. Finally, the micro-organisms in humus mine minerals that are key to the development of plants and their health. The key to creating humus is through the introduction of organic matter into the soil.
Know your soil
The first step in improving your soil is to get to know your soil. There are a few basic soil tests that are economical and can be done at home by you. The first is a basic pH test. Here you can by a pH test kit at the local store or use pH strips that are available at a local pharmacy. Your soil pH determines which minerals are made available to your plants. For instance, if your soil is acidic (below 6.4 pH) then a limited amount of Calcium, Phosphorous and Magnesium is available to your plants. If your soil is alkaline, then Iron and Boron are some of the minerals that your plant will not have readily available to it. Thus improving your soil pH is a key part of the strategy of improving your soil.
Next, you want to understand your soil type. Soil contains sand, silt, clay and organic matter. The best type of soil is well-drained loam, that is 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay. Here a few tests can be performed to determine your soil type: the jar test, infiltration test, sausage test. More information on how to do these tests is available online or in your local library.
All soils can be improved by improving the humus content through organic matter the following are five ways to create more humus.
Chop and drop
When pruning your trees instead of taking the prunings to your compost bin or even worse taking it to the tip, simply use a loper to cut the prunings into smaller pieces and then place them around the drip line of the tree you have just pruned. The edge of the tree canopy is where the drip line is. Leave the prunings there to rot away this feeds the micro-organisms in the soil and puts back some of the nitrogen that is in the prunings.
Natural Pest Control
While working on getting your soil and plants healthy use natural pest control methods such as interplanting your plants and vegetables with plants that attract beneficial insects. Plants such as marigolds lure insects in that will feast on any unwanted bugs on your plants. If you have to use a spray look for a natural remedy such as white oil, garlic and chilli sprays. There of lots of these that can be found online. Click here for natural remedies
No dig gardening
Turning the soil in your garden or even on the land disturbs the microorganism and earthworm activity and can set your soil improvement strategy back a few months or even years. Given that digging is hard work it is worth considering building a no dig garden bed. This method uses layering of cardboard, compost, vegetable scraps and mulch to build the next layer of soil. Click here to learn more about putting together your no dig garden.
Composting in situ
Having a compost bay system to which you bring all your leaves, grass clipping and other composting material can be hard work and then having to turn and maintain it might seem like the value is not worth the effort. But there are ways to get the same or even better result by composting in situ. You can simply place a compost bin in the garden where your soil is depleted, once the bin is full and your compost is ready, remove the bin and rake the compost across the soil right there. Another idea is having worm towers throughout your garden in which you can put all your vegetable scraps and composting material. To see more on this click here.
Another way to cultivate soil activating microbes is through worm farming it is easy to keep composting worms so that you can harvest their castings and the mineral-rich worm tea that is a by-product of their composting process. Buy a ready-made worm farm or make your own. Composting worms make quick work of the micro-organisms that break down your vegetable scraps and they are particularly fond of the organisms that live on banana skins and teabags. Dilute the worm tea 10 parts water to 1 part worm tea and water your plants with it and see the difference in their growth.
Other types of compost tea to nourish your plants can be made from animal manures (chicken, alpaca, cow etc). Simply dilute animal manure in water, stir and let it brew for a few days then dilute and water your plants with the liquid. A good way to get rid of weeds is to drown them in water (not all weeds can be destroyed this way, so check before doing it) once the weed has liquified, dilute it with water and give the liquid to your plants that way you are reusing the nutrients that have been created in the weed for the nourishment of your plants.