3 Critical Soil Building Techniques

This is a guest article on soil building by Phil Nauta from Smiling Gardener.

THERE ARE DOZENS OF SOIL BUILDING TECHNIQUES you can use to start an organic garden. I’ve tried most of them, and in my view, these three are the most important to take care of first:

1. Use Quality Compost

Using quality compost is the number one priority for most gardeners. Not only does it bring in a broad range of nutrients, but it also supplies organic matter and beneficial organisms, both of which are generally low in most soils.

The organic matter holds onto nutrients and water, gives food and habitat to many helpful organisms, increases air in the soil and decreases compaction. The beneficial organisms – microorganisms, insects and other tiny animals – drastically improve the soil and directly feed and protect plants. They’re often the missing ingredient in achieving a healthy garden.

By quality compost, I mean compost that looks like nice/dark/moist/crumbly soil, smells good and was made with a diversity of non-toxic materials.

When I’m starting a new garden, I bring in as much as 6 inches of compost and usually till or dig it in. I don’t till much after that, but it’s helpful that first time to get it down into the root zone. Here’s where you can learn more about how to use compost on my site, and here’s Bill’s post on how to compost faster. In future years, I don’t bring in as much compost because my soil is covered by mulch…

Soil Building

Phil from Smiling Gardener discusses soil building.

2. Use A Proper Mulch

As you know, mulch goes on top of the soil. It provides many of the same benefits as compost – holding water, decreasing evaporation, providing food and habitat for organisms, breaking down into organic matter, protecting the soil, and so on. It even provides fertility if you use the right kind. But the most common mulches are either not very helpful or even detrimental.

For example, stones/rocks protect the soil and keep it moist, but don’t break down into organic matter, and actually stop any other organic matter from being incorporated into the soil. Bark mulch and wood chips do many things right, but both can contribute to nitrogen deficiency in the soil. I’ve seen this many times. Bark from conifers contains a lot of toxins. These can work in some situations, but aren’t my favorite choice, especially for a vegetable garden.

My favorite mulches are straw and leaves. Straw does nearly everything right, although it doesn’t look that great and has to be brought in every year. Still, it’s my mulch of choice in a new garden until I can accumulate enough of the absolute best mulch: leaves.

Leaves contain many nutrients, look natural, and with intelligent garden design, will appear for you every autumn from your deciduous trees and plants. Leaves are nature’s fertilizer, and then you can supplement nutrients if you like…

3. Use The Right Fertilizer

There are thousands of organic fertilizers made specifically for organic gardening. Choosing the right one for you can get overwhelming, but fortunately, you don’t need all of them. In fact, before using any of them, you probably need compost and a good mulch. They’re the best all-round fertilizers available.

Then you can supplement with a natural, broad-spectrum fertilizer such as sea minerals or kelp. What I like about them is that they have just a little bit of everything, rather than only nitrogen – phosphorus – potassium (N-P-K).

Then there are more specific mineral fertilizers like dolomite lime and gypsum. I know they’re often recommended in organic gardening, but the truth is that they shouldn’t be used unless you’ve had a soil test done that indicates you actually need the minerals they contain. I don’t mean a home soil test kit – I’m referring to sending your sample to a quality lab that gives organic recommendations.

Leaves are nature’s fertilizer.

Otherwise, it’s very likely that you’re supplying the wrong nutrients. For example, dolomite lime supplies a lot of calcium and magnesium. The calcium is often a good thing, but most people already have too much magnesium. Adding more just causes compaction and pest problems.

So unless you’re getting into soil testing, it’s best to stick with the fertilizers that provide many different minerals in just tiny amounts. Quality compost and leaf mulch supply a lot of this, and others such as sea minerals and kelp can be used to kick things up a notch.

I’ve been gardening for a long time, and I really enjoy getting into some of the more advanced techniques such as compost tea brewing and soil mineral balancing based on a soil test, but I always have to remind myself that three basic techniques — compost, mulch and broad-spectrum fertilizing — are the most important steps to take care of first.

Phil Nauta is a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional. He’s the author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally’, to be released by Acres U.S.A. this summer. He has taught for Gaia College and been a director for The Society For Organic Urban Land Care. He was an organic landscaper and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting smilinggardener.com to teach practical organic gardening tips to home gardeners.

Related articles you might enjoy:

1. Growing Cover Crop
2. Mulching Raised Garden Beds
3. Making Soil – Chop and Drop
4. Five Gardening Ideas from Building Soils Naturally

*If you purchase using this link, I make a small amount of money that helps me continue to keep writing this blog.

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8 Responses to “3 Critical Soil Building Techniques”

  1. Jeffery
    June 27, 2012 at 3:41 am #

    Hello Phil,
    The addition of compost to the existing soil can greatly improve the chance that a new lawn will take hold and thrive. Up to three inches of compost worked into the top six inches of soil will give the new soil an excellent start. That’s why it’s the most important procedure while building soil.

    • June 28, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

      Agreed. It gets harder after the lawn is in, so it’s nice to put a lot in there before installation.

  2. July 2, 2012 at 8:28 pm #

    Phil, one source of calcium that doesn’t raise soil pH is gypsum. Improves soil structure in compacted Western soils and improves drainage, too. It’s a naturally occurring chemical compound.

    • July 4, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

      It’s actually a myth that it doesn’t raise pH (sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t), but it is a great material when you need calcium and sulfur.

      • July 4, 2012 at 9:04 pm #

        Phil, according to Washington State University (for example), “Gypsum is calcium sulfate. It is not a substitute for lime, and has little effect on soil pH.” Gypsum’s influences on pH are side effects of interactions with and removal of undesirable soil elements such as sodium and aluminum.

        • July 27, 2012 at 7:09 pm #

          Hi Astro, sorry for the late reply. Yes, many people even in Universities often don’t understand soil science. Not that I’m some kind of soil wizard by any means, but I know a few things and I see a lot of errors in University soil textbooks.

          They’re kind of right here. Gypsum isn’t a substitute for lime. You use gypsum when you need calcium and sulfur. You use calcitic lime when you need calcium. You use dolomite lime when you need calcium and a lot of magnesium. All of them can influence pH. It depends on the balance of minerals you already have in your soil. Whenever the pH changes, it’s not a “side effect.” It’s just an “effect.”

          Thanks for your feedback, Phil

  3. August 8, 2012 at 1:14 pm #

    Hey Phil, I live near a community compost site which one would think would be a great place to get tons of compost but is it really? I’m wondering if people are dumping their grass clippings and yard waste from chemically treated lawns wouldn’t this then make the compost harmful? What is your opinion on this – I’d hate to give up a great source of free compost, but at the same time I don’t want to use it if it will introduce chemicals into my untreated yard and garden.

  4. August 8, 2012 at 1:41 pm #

    It’s not ideal, but it’s rare to find compost that doesn’t have some pesticide residue or some other undesirable materials. As long as it’s not made with especially toxic products like industry waste, sewage sludge, etc., I would use it. Most of the chemicals should be broken down in the pile if it is composted well.

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