My Soil Improvement Plan

IT SEEMS AS THOUGH no matter what might be wrong with your soil, the path to soil improvement is essentially the same – at least if you are an organic gardener.

If you don’t believe me, take a look at the Oregon State University Extension Service’s soil quality guide. It offers 10 questions to analyze your soil. Based on the results of your analysis, you can make adjustments in how you are managing your soil in order to have healthier plants.

The only thing is that, with the exception of a mineral deficiency or the wrong pH, just about any soil can be improved using the same five steps. With this in mind, here is my plan for soil improvement for my vegetable garden:

1. Top dress with compost. You can never put too much compost on your soil, especially if you made it yourself. The best compost comes from a well diversified portfolio of organic plant materials and manure. In the fall, I also apply a layer of shellfish compost and let it continue to compost in my garden over the winter.

2. Cover your soil with mulch. Rain will pound bare soil into a powder. Powdery soil will not hold the proper nutrients and may even form a brick-like texture that roots can’t penetrate. Mulch is the secret to protecting your soil from the pummeling and, depending on what you use for mulch, it may also add organic matter to the soil.

3. Plant cover crops. I plant cover crops each fall to add organic matter to the soil. White clover is what prefer because it adds nitrogen, but I’ll plant winter rye if it’s too cold to grow clover in the fall. The only problem with rye is that if there isn’t enough snow during the winter to smother it, you may have difficulty turning it (and killing it) because the root system will be so thick.

Make sure you turn your cover crop the right way. If you dig too deep it will upset the natural soil structure. Although raising the subsoil may bring minerals to the top layer of soil, most people would agree that you should only slice off the very top two or three inches of top soil and turn it under. This keeps the natural soil structure in place with the most organic matter on top.

4. Rotate your plant families. Most experts suggest that you shouldn’t grow plants in the same plant families in the same location for three years. Or even longer if possible. Crop rotation helps prevent nutrient depletion of the soil because it varies the nutrients being removed by the crops. It also helps to reduce pest problems. But most backyard gardeners don’t have the room needed to not grow the same plant family in a location for three years. I make it a rule not to plant the same crop in the same location for two years in a row. This is about as much as I can manage given the space I have to garden.

5. Rest the soil. I rest one of my raised beds every year. I grow only cover crop in it, but still apply compost. Each year I’m tempted to use the resting bed because there’s never enough room to grow all the varieties I want, but I convince myself it is a neccesary investment in future crops.

My guess is that you have a soil improvement plan. Let us know how you do it by commenting below.

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3. Composting Compostable Packaging

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2 Responses to “My Soil Improvement Plan”

  1. June 30, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    I use a cheap method to get more organic matter into new garden beds. I buy a bag of the cheapest mixed birdseed I can find in the supermarket, broadcast it thickly on the new bed, and rake the seeds in.

    I let it grow for a few weeks until it’s about a foot tall, and then dig it in (it helps to sharpen your spade first!).

    It’s even better if you can get cheap pea or bean (or other legume) seeds, since they help set nitrogen into the soil as well.


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