Good soil not just helps your plants to grow big, nutrient dense & delicious, it also helps them protect themselves from diseases and fight off infections & infestations.
So how can you feed the soil that feeds the plants, that feed you? Here are nine ideas to get started.
1. Don’t Leave It Bare
Nature abhors a vacuum and will use what ever it can to cover the soil as fast as possible. The reason for this is that soil is prone to damage when left uncovered. It can be literally washed or blown away. Furthermore the organisms that live in healthy soil can be exposed to conditions they can’t survive. For these guys bare soil is a bit like a house without a roof: hard to live in. So plant it up, use mulch, green manure, or even cardboard & newspaper if you need to leave a patch bare for awhile. If you do leave it exposed, expect nature to fill it in ASAP with what ever she has at hand.
2. Mulch, Mulch, Mulch
No surprise then that the next way to improve your soil is to use mulch. Wood chips, sugar cane, lucerne, straw, or what ever you have at hand (eg. autumn leaves). Mulch not only covers the soil which helps to retain moisture and stabilise temperature, it also breaks down and adds nutrients to the soil. You can be deliberate with the type of mulch you use for the type of results you want to get. For example pine needles around blueberry plants to increase soil acidity. If you want to dive deeper into soil chemistry, Organic Gardening by Peter Bennett has several chapters which explain how to get things right for your plants. Mulch encourages worms, suppresses weeds and reduces the amount of water you need.
3. Grow Dynamic Accumulators
Deep rooted plants like comfrey, dock & chicory (as well as most trees) bring up nutrients from deep down in the soil to their leaves. These can be chopped/or left to fall naturally so that the nutrients are available at the top of the soil level as they decompose. Plants that bringing up deep nutrients to their leaves & then the ground where they can be accessed by other plants are called dynamic accumulators. Planting some (or learning which weeds are already doing this as they try to mend damaged soil) is a great way to add fertility to your soil. Just chop the leaves and use it as mulch where you want added nutrients.
4. Add Compost
Adding compost to your soil gives is a bit like a vitamin boost. This is particularly necessary if you ave been harvesting the same patch for a while or your soil is depleted from prior uses.
There are several different ways to make compost. Hot compost which kills seeds & weeds requires mixing carbon and nitrogen elements (dried brown & fresher green leaves for example) with sufficient moisture and air circulation. There also needs to be a large enough pile to sustain the heat. One cubic meter is a good size to really get things/keep things cooking. You will need substantially more carbon (brown) than nitrogen (green). Some people say a ratio of 4:1, others say 25:1. Either way mostly brown with a little green. To learn the ins and outs, techniques and tips to become an expert composter I would recommend The Compost Book by David Taylor.
5. Grow Nitrogen Fixing Plants
Beans & legumes have a fantastic ability to draw nitrogen out of the atmosphere and put it in the soil. They make a wonderful living mulch or can be dug back into the soil when they are spent. Clover is actually a legume, as is alfalfa. You could incorporate nitrogen fixing plants into your crop rotation. For instance growing green beans prior to lettuce in a garden bed. This way the beans add nitrogen to the soil, which is great for healthy, vibrant lettuce.
Worm castings are fantastic for improving your soil. You can easily buy a ready made worm farm, or choose a more DIY approach. You can convert a wider range of rubbish into soil with worms than say a compost heap. They are fantastic at turning garbage into gold for soil. You need to buy worms that are appropriate for your area. For example tropical worms will die at 15 degrees Celsius. For do’s and don’t and how to keep your worms happy and healthy Soil Food by Jackie French is a greta place to start.
7. Encouraging Wild Animals
Encouraging wild animals into the garden is a great way to get free manure. This is best for orchards rather than veggies patches, as you don’t want fresh manure on your veggie patch, nor do you want any confusion about what they should eat. Examples include bird feeders, keeping dogs & cats away so that native animals feel safe to venture in. Bird feeders that vermin can’t access are the sensible way to avoid attracting the unwanted wild animals.
8. Using Domestic Animals
Domestic animals such as chooks or geese is another obvious great way to get manure around fruit trees. They also have the advantage of eating scraps, damaged or diseased fruit, and bugs or other pests breaking disease cycles in you garden. Save yourself the trouble of shovelling and moving manure by setting up a safe enclosure for them around the trees you want to fertilise. Don’t use cat or dog poo without treating it first.
9. Don’t Use Chemical Pesticides
Aside from the fact that the World Health Organisation has said that some of the more common ones are probably carcinogenic (meaning the cause cancer) and you don’t want that any where near you, your family or your food …ASIDE from that…. they kill lots of benifical soil organisms which you have been working hard to encourage.
While personally I would urge you to do some research as to what that unwanted plant you are blasting is, and if you can use it for food, compost etc. You may also find what that plant is telling you about your garden & how it’s helping (is it braking up compressed soil, covering bare soil, adding minerals or nitrogen, neutralising acidic soil). If you don’t like that particular solution nature has offered, is there a way you would prefer (eg. A domestic plant or some mulch for example).
If you still decide you don’t want that plant, the easiest way to get rid of it is next time you boil the jug for a cup of tea poor the rest of the boiling water on the unwanted plant. The heat will kill most plants, and you won’t expose yourself and the rest of the garden to potential health risks. More on weeds another time.
If you want to learn more about building fertile, healthy soil I would recommend Soil Food by Jackie French, The Compost Book by David Taylor, or Organic Gardening by Petter Bennet. All are available on in our online bookshop.
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