As we are steadily moving towards cooler months, and for some of you freezing already, now is a great time to start looking into ways to improve soil. You don’t have to do any of it right now, especially if it’s too cold to work the soil or grow a cover crop. But having these ideas in your journal as ways to improve soil will help in the long run.
10 Ways To Improve Your Soil
Mulching is usually a forgotten chore in the garden but it is so important. I know what you’re thinking, “I don’t have any plants in the ground, why should I mulch?” Because mulching, no matter the season, keeps weeds at bay, puts organic matter back in the soil and helps retain moisture in the soil.
This is another huge thing that gets left out for most new gardeners. They think, well I’ve harvested what I need so I’m just going to rip out all of the plants. Then they don’t put any new plants to make sure that the soil stays covered.
I use this mix from True Leaf Markets for the kitchen garden. Depending on what I need in my big garden will depend on what mix (or self mix) I use. I usually try to do a mix that my chickens and ducks can eat on. But regardless of what you buy, something has to be planted in order to keep your ground soft and workable.
This goes hand in hand with mulching and cover cropping. Soil needs to have organic matter to give it better structure. If you have ever lived in a place with clay soil, you know it is clumpy when wet or blows away if too dry. We want to change the structure of the soil by allowing roots to grow and create channels. The more growth and channels, the more water can be absorbed.
Low or No Till
Tilling isn’t bad per say, but over the last hundred years or so, we have come to realize that tilling may not be the best thing for the soil. When you till, you are ripping the soil apart and that means you are ripping apart the microbiomes that live in the soil. To make this more relatable, it would be like a nuclear bomb going off in your town every couple of months. Everything is destroyed and you have to rebuild season after season.
If you can limit the amount of destruction to the soil, you will have soil with better moisture retention and a lot less run off. Not to mention it’ll have the channels to retrieve nutrients from deeper in the ground.
Leaves and limbs
We’ve been taught to think that leaves and debris is something that must be hauled off. But you are getting rid of one of the best (and FREE) resources that our land gives us! Throw those leaves into the compost or straight onto a bed to act as mulch. Trust me, your garden will thank you for it.
There could be issues with the leaves and branches composting and sucking up a ton of nitrogen. But I have not seen that to be an issue. But I also cover crop with nitrogen fixers.
I talked in depth about using animal bedding as compost here. It is probably the best and easiest ways to fill up or top dress a garden bed. Especially, when you are looking for free or cheap materials for your garden beds.
You can also use pine shavings as mulch too.
Eliminate pesticides and synthetics fertilizers
When I read Gabe Brown’s Dirt to Soil, he mentions that when you use synthetics you are creating “lazy” plants. If the plant doesn’t have to work to get its nutrients because you give it to them, the plant isn’t going to be as hardy or give back to the soil. Same thing with pesticides. Even natural fertilizers and pesticides are creating a situation where the plant doesn’t have to defend or protect itself.
We don’t use any amendments to our beds except compost and animal bedding. That’s it. We learned very quickly that our plants were healthier and are better able to fend off pests if we just left them alone. So that’s what we do.
Animals are a phenomenal way to improve your soil! To put it very simply, you put an animal in a portable pen, give them some hay and let them be in that pen for 1-4 days depending on the animal size and size of pen. After you move them to a new area, seed where they were. If you can keep this up, they will slowly but surely fix your compacted soil!
Our pigs have been instrumental in bringing our property back! They turned hard, compacted clay, that a tiller couldn’t get into because of the rocks, into the softest black soil within 3 rotations!
We’ve all heard this one. You’ve got to rotate crops to keep pests, fungi, etc from becoming a problem. But it’s actually more than that. When you rotate your crops from a heavy nitrogen feeder to a nitrogen fixer, you are giving the soil a chance to recover. We want to make sure that we don’t put heavy feeders in the same place for about 3 planting seasons.
For example: You planted Corn in summer 2022, Squash in Fall of 2022, and Tomatoes in summer 2023. Your soil is going to be bone dry when it comes to nutrients. But if you were to plant beans, peas, and garlic in fall of 2022 instead of squash, you have broken the heavy feeder cycle without having to amend the beds with inputs.
Plants probably the most under rated way to improve soil health. I used to pull spent plants from the ground and give them to my chickens, goats, pigs, whatever. But when you rip out plants, you are taking all that carbon out of the soil. You are wrecking all those channels and creating more work for the soil microbiome to fix.
The best thing you can do when you are done with a bed is to just hit it with a weed eater, clippers, etc and just chop and drop it just above soil level. This will leave all that carbon (roots) in the ground to compost and feed the microbiome.
What are your favorite ways to improve soil health?
These are just my favorite ways to improve soil health. In fact, these are the only things I do and we have seen a HUGE improvement in planting. It used to be that we would have to use a drill attachment augur to be able to plant. Now, I can just stick my hand in the dirt and move the soil out of the way. How cool is that!?
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