Everyone who has ever tried to grow anything knows that it all starts with the soil. Most people never really think about the soil cycle that happens yearly, let alone things you can do at certain times to help improve it. Adding fertilizer alone is just not enough! In this article, we will look at the different stages of your soil and things you can do during each stage so you can reap the rewards at harvest time!
The first thing to remember is that soil is a living thing that’s made by the death and decay of other things. Mother Nature is efficient and nothing goes to waste! This article is written with the newbie gardener in mind and I encourage comments from other veteran food gardeners out there in the comment section below!
Fresh Garden. It’s spring and you’ve worked all winter long to plan and build your garden. You’ve got fresh soil, bursting with nutrients, to plant your seeds and sprouts in. Everything is set and ready for your gardening dreams to become a reality and you dream of fresh veggies from your own private ‘Produce Section.’ You’ve got your things planted in pretty little rows and now work on tending them as they grow. Since the soil is fresh, there is no need to amend much of anything – unless you’re growing something with special nutrient needs.
While there are no beneficial bugs in purchased soil, it’s still packed full of nutrients that are slow releasing to help those fragile plants get a good start! It’s important to not add anything to new soil, fertilizer-wise. Too much nitrogen can ‘burn’ and kill off plants before they really get started. Things like sand or perlite for drainage is perfectly fine.
During the Grow Season. Your soil has started to get depleted of nutrients and organic material. Though it’s still healthy, good soil, the plants have been gobbling up all that nutrition. Depending on your garden set up, bugs and worms have found their way into your soil and are doing their jobs. Worms help break organic material down and aerate the soil. They leave behind their waste that adds nutrients back into the soil, too. Your garden is lush from the good soil and plants smile drunkenly up at the sun while you walk through and enjoy seeing your hard work starting to pay off.
The plants will give you signals that they aren’t getting what they need such as yellowing, being over or under watered, dropping, etc. If you have fresh soil that year (and know it has the proper nutrients via a soil test or because you bought it bagged from the nursery), it’s unlikely you’ll have to do much of anything other than weed and water it but, if you feel the need to fertilize, consider one of these non-manure fertilizers that won’t overdo it. One example is used coffee grounds – another is egg shells! Trust me, it’s heart breaking to lose an entire bed of vegetables because you put too much fertilizer in there and burned all the plants!
After the Harvest. This is just about the ‘lowest’ point of the soil cycle, at least nutrition wise! The bounty you hopefully pulled and preserved out of your garden leaves behind depleted soil. There may still be some good organic material in there that still needs to break down but unless you plan on speeding that process up, you will need to help your soil along.
I cannot stress to you the absolute necessity of adding organic material back into your garden every year. If you compost, you’re on your way because compost is full of nothing but broken down organic material! Mix some of that into the soil either in Fall or Spring. This is what most people end up doing. For myself, I prefer to add organic material in both seasons.
In Fall, before planting the next year’s garlic, I will go to the beach and gather up garbage bag fuls of seaweed. I’ve seen several different ways people use seaweed in their gardens. Some people will put it into a food processor and essentially liquify it before adding it to the soil. I lay down a thick layer of seaweed down and then work it all into the soil. Over the winter, the seaweed (which is mostly water) will break down and add in all sorts of good nutrients and minerals. There is not enough salt in them to harm the soil or leave large deposits. Then, I plant my garlic and let everything settle and rest all winter long.
In Spring, I mix in compost and sometimes another bag of store bought dirt. Since soil is constantly breaking down or being absorbed into the plants, you’ll notice that the levels in the beds drop. It’s not just the water packing it down, it’s being used and needs to be replenished!
Summary. This is a very quick view into a complex system of death, decay, life, and growth. Death and decay leaves behind nutrients for new life to take hold, blossom, and then give itself back to the soil for the next round. You have to care for it, feed it, and make sure there is a good balance. Doing so helps decrease the possibility of soil borne problems and increases your success rates for a bountiful harvest!