Garden Q+A: How Do I Amend My Soil?
“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil ... There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.” - Charles E. Kellogg
Spring is approaching fast, and it's the time of year where new gardeners everywhere are wondering what to do about amending their soil. What does that mean anyway? As a new gardener myself, last year we cut the sod, tilled the soil six inches, and planted. Our plants thrived, but I am beginning to learn that this method is kind of an old school method, and while it worked great the first year... in years to come it would most likely have resulted in a pretty dry and destitute garden. Why is that? Every time you till, you disturb the natural microbial habitat living in your soil. That includes the earthworm populations, beneficial insects, soil nutrients, and beneficial bacteria. Digging into your garden every year can create compaction which makes it difficult for plant roots to establish themselves, can spread weed seeds, and erodes the soil over time meaning you'll eventually have to replenish that layer of topsoil you keep digging up and tearing out. This year, we're going to begin our first year of no-till gardening or back to eden gardening or even lasagna gardening. I actually started this method last autumn at the Little Homestead, but we moved! You can read what I did in the fall to get that garden ready for spring planting here.
Today's big question is: how do I amend my soil for spring planting?
The best answer is to do all of this prior to planting, ideally in the autumn or at least two months ahead of the game. That's kind of difficult to do if you're in the same boat that we are! We purchased our farm in December after the ground had frozen and the snow had fallen. We kind of missed our opportunity, so we'll be speeding the process up. Let's first answer this: What is a soil amendment?
When most people hear the word compost, they assume that compost is a fertilizer when in fact it's an amendment. Compost is a beautiful blend of plant and animal rot. After heating up and aging over time, it turns into humus, which a blend of broken down materials like leaves, grasses, and plants that create organic matter. Humus is a major part of soil composition and is something that as a gardener you definitely want to have when it comes to making sure your soil is healthy. Having incredibly rich, fertile soil is the key to having happy, strong plants. One of the best things I've learned about sustainability is that by not giving back to the soil each year, each time you take a plant out, then you're essentially just shooting yourself in the foot. That is why I really want to rely upon the no-till system!
Why No-Till Works
Have you ever walked across a forest floor, where no man has tried planting anything before? The ground caves in and is almost spongy, right? That soil is ideal. We have an area on our acreage that is simply brush surrounded by various trees. It hasn't been tilled or planted on for well over 10 years, and you create deep footprints everywhere you walk. Yet, even though no one has ever dug into that soil, things somehow grow there all their own? How does that happen? By creating a no-till garden, you are essential mimicking the forest floor. It's pretty easy to do, though it can be more expensive. That's the downside. The plus side is that you are creating this really organic, natural way to grow plants.
No-till promotes natural aeration and drainage. When you till the soil, it does open up air pockets, but the soil becomes more easy to compact once a heavy rain comes. No-till systems are proven to be freer of pest and disease problems, which is assumed to be from undisturbed earthworm populations. No-till is just a simple way of making sure the earthworm populations in your garden continue to rise. It also saves water to till less; you pile up mulches in a no-till system, which is one way to keep water retention at an all time high. More mulch, less water. Not to mention that by practicing this form of soil amendment, you won't be breaking your back digging, cutting, or tilling. That sounds nice, doesn't it?
Essentially, you'll want to start this in the autumn. It gives the soil time to adjust to all of the new mediums you'll be placing on top of it. For instance, if you get your soil tested (which you should!) you may have to apply lime or sulfur to adjust the pH. These have to be added at least 2-3 months prior to planting, which makes November an ideal time to do just that. For this method, you could potentially do all of these steps 2-4 weeks prior to planting because I suggest that you use compost, rotted manure, or composted manure. If you do this in the autumn, you could use fresh manure that would rot over the following months before planting! This is kind of the issue that I am personally running into - finding rotted manure!
- Double dig your garden bed to establish the plot. We simply rototill the garden; this year we'll just be tilling in the grass, which is typically a big no-no. However, I am going to experiment and see if suppressing the weeds with mulches will change that. If you want, cut the sod and till about 4-6 inches this one time,
- Add a 1-inch layer of compost or well rotted manure. Spread evenly.
- Layer with a biodegradable weed suppressant: cardboard, newspaper, paper mulch, landscaping fabric (the kind that will break down).
- Add another 1-inch layer of compost or well rotted manure.
- Add a 1-inch layer of organic fertilizer (kelp meal, peat, lime, coconut coir, etc)
- Add a layer of mulched leaves - do this sparingly as too many layered leaves could potentially block water. Mulching them helps quite a bit!
- Add a thick layer of mulch! You can never go too thick. Use whichever material you like such as straw, hay (be weary of seeds here), seaweed, shredded bark, wood shavings, etc.
Once this is done, planting is essentially easy from there. When you are ready to transplant your crops into the soil, simply move back the mulch and create a little hole with your hands. If you used cardboard or a paper layer, just punch a little hole in it with a knife to create a pathway for roots. Place the plant in the hole and put a little compost or potting medium around it. Pack in the plant, replace the mulch around the base, and water thoroughly. That's it! The rest will happen on its own! Then it's just watching your mulch. The art of no-till is simply replacing mulches over time as the older ones break down and turn to compost. Pretty neat, huh? Even if you don't want to do full on no-till, amending your soil is smart to do.