Tag Archives: soil building

10 Easy Ways to Improve Your Soil

Want healthy plants? Start by building healthy soil. Your soil health can affect your plant’s productivity, disease and pest resistance, and more. Use these ten strategies to improve your soil and build a healthier, more productive garden.

1. Start composting.

Compost enriches the soil and adds structure and beneficial fungi and bacteria. It’s an excellent amendment for any garden and easy to make yourself. Check out our post, Black Gold: Making Compost, for easy directions to get started in your backyard.

Those without yards can consider vermicomposting or check with community gardens or city compost facilities to bring kitchen scraps to and access aged compost.

2. Grow cover crops.

Cover crops are not just for big farms! Cover crops help improve the soil in many ways. Some are “nitrogen fixers” like clover and vetch and add nitrogen to the soil as they grow; other crops like buckwheat help quickly build up organic matter and make excellent mulch.

All cover crops are a good way to cover the soil. They shade it holding in moisture, provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, and their roots hold the soil preventing erosion.

You can read more about using cover crops in your garden here.

3. Get a soil test.

Testing your soil can help you make the best choices for your garden, saving you time and money. You’ll learn what nutrients may be missing and whether you should amend your soil’s pH. Check out Understanding Soil Tests for a more in-depth explanation.

You can purchase at-home soil tests at most garden centers or send your soil to be tested. Many universities and state and county extension services offer very affordable soil testing.

4. Understand the soil food web.

The soil food web is similar to a “food chain” but is non-linear. It’s made up of plants, animals, and all the organisms in the soil from visible insects and fungus to microscopic bacteria. A healthy soil food web is key to a healthy garden and ecosystem. Learn more by reading our post, The Soil Food Web.

5. Reduce erosion.

Not everyone is blessed with a large, perfectly flat garden site. Even if you are, wind can still wreak havoc on exposed soil. Don’t lose soil to the effects of wind and water.

If you live in a windy area, utilize windbreaks. These can be fencing, shrubs, or trees. Even young shrubs and trees can make a surprising difference.

To prevent water erosion, you should try to keep your soil covered. Use cover crops whenever possible and keep the soil around plants mulched. Permanent pathways with a cover crop like clover are ideal.

If your property is sloped, look into permaculture methods like planting on contour and building swales. These can help you stop erosion and collect water for your plants!

6. Provide habitat for beneficial insects.

When people hear beneficial insects, they often think of bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. While you should strive to help these species, there are many more that also play key roles in keeping your garden healthy. These include many predatory species such as wasps, beetles, and mantises.

You can support beneficial insects in many ways. Using cover crops and mulch, as I mentioned above, helps provide habitat as does planting native species and leaving dead material in your garden (unless it has a pest or disease issue). You can also create your own habitat by building an insect hotel.  Of course, it’s also important to avoid using pesticides. Even organic pesticides can spell doom for beneficial insects as they usually affect more than one species. 

7. Use mulch.

I’ve mentioned mulch a couple of times now, but it’s incredibly helpful in the garden. It helps to block weeds, keep the soil cool and moist (or warm in the winter), and provides structure and organic matter as it breaks down.

Check our post, Mulch Ado…, to learn more about why mulch is important and how we use it at SESE.

8. Rotate your crops.

Whether you have an acre in garden or just a tiny little plot, you should rotate your crops. Rotating crops prevents pests and diseases from building up the soil where you grow a particular plant. It also helps to reduce nutrient depletion. One year you grow heavy feeders like tomatoes or corn, and the next, you grow nitrogen fixers like beans and peas or a cover crop.

Need advice? See Planning Crop Rotation by Plant Family.

9. Amend your soil.

As you’ll learn from your soil test, it is sometimes necessary to add amendments to your soil. These amendments can be used to change the soil’s pH like lime, wood ash, or peat moss. Other amendments allow you to add the macro and micronutrients that are necessary for plant growth. These include manure, compost, eggshells, greensand, and fertilizer.

Learn more about amendments and common nutrient deficiencies in plants here.

10. Reduce or eliminate tilling.

Rototilling may seem like a crucial part of gardening, but many farmers, gardeners, and scientists have discovered that it’s possible to grow a more productive and more environmentally friendly garden by ditching the tiller.

Going no-till reduces compaction and keeps the soil structure intact. It allows you to use plant and cover crop residue as mulch that will decompose as it would in a natural ecosystem. It also allows beneficial bacteria, insects, and fungi to thrive in the soil. 

Follow these tips to build healthy soil in your garden.

Common Nutrient Deficiencies in Plants

Spotting nutrient deficiencies in your plants can be challenging, especially if you’re new to gardening. Here are what a few common deficiencies look like and how to correct them.

Soil Nutrients

Nutrients in the soil can be divided into two categories macronutrients and micronutrients/trace minerals.

The first category, macronutrients, comprises primary nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium and secondary nutrients sulfur, magnesium, and calcium. If you think your plant has a nutrient deficiency, these are the likely culprits.

The second category, known as micronutrients or trace minerals, includes boron, chlorine, copper, iron, manganese, molybdenum, and zinc. While these are still important to plant health, they’re needed in such small quantities that it’s less likely your plant is deficient in one of these micronutrients.

You can read more detailed descriptions of what all of these nutrients do in our post, Understanding Soil Tests.

Nitrogen Deficiency

A nitrogen-deficient plant will grow slowly and lack vigor. The leaves may turn pale and yellow before dropping off, with the oldest leaves dropping first.

Note that it’s easy to overdo it when adding nitrogen, especially if you’re using chemical fertilizer. Adding too much nitrogen will cause lush, dark green foliar growth at the expense of fruit and flower production.

There are many ways to add nitrogen to your soil. While you shouldn’t directly apply it to plants, animal manure is a good choice if you have access to it. Compost will also add some nitrogen, or you can add seaweed or kelp meal, fish emulsion, bone meal, coffee grounds, soybean meal, or cottonseed meal. Using legume cover crops also helps to increase your soil’s nitrogen levels.

Phosphorus Deficiency

A plant that is deficient in phosphorus will also lack vigor and may be stunted. It might drop fruit before it’s ripe or not produce fruit at all. The lower leaves may appear red or purple.

You can add phosphorus to your soil using rock phosphate, greensand, compost, or bonemeal.

Potassium Deficiency

Potassium deficiency will probably be most apparent in your plant’s leaves, which may be mottled or curled or have brown edges. The plants will also be weak and have stunted root growth. They will likely be more susceptible to disease and pest issues.

Good potassium sources include manure, compost, seaweed or kelp meal, potash, granite dust, greensand, and wood ashes.

Sulfur Deficiency

While sulfur is a macronutrient, a sulfur deficiency is much less common. Signs include stunted growth and pale, yellow leaves.

Add sulfur with gypsum, compost, or sulfur.

Magnesium Deficiency

If your plant is deficient in magnesium, you may notice poor flower and fruit production, stunted growth, and dropping leaves. Leaves may also appear mottled with yellow/white patches or purple/brown patches between the leaf veins.

To correct a magnesium deficiency, add limestone, manure, compost, or greensand.

Calcium Deficiency

Calcium deficient plants may die back or have buds that die. Their leaves will likely appear burnt, curling, or have necrotic leaf margins. You may also notice issues like blossom end rot and other signs of tissue necrosis.

Use oyster shells, eggshells, limestone, gypsum, or fishmeal to add calcium to your soil.

Notice how similar a lot of these symptoms are?

If you’re having problems with nutrient deficiencies, the best advice is always to get your soil tested. It isn’t complicated or expensive and will tell you precisely what you need.

It will also tell you what your soil’s pH is. Soil pH can affect plants’ nutrient uptake and may cause deficiencies even if your soil is otherwise fine.

If your soil test comes out fine, your plants may be struggling due to over or underwatering or disease issues.

How do I prevent deficiencies?

The first step you should take is to develop a garden rotation plan that includes cover crops. They’re excellent for preventing erosion and adding nutrients to your soil.

Yearly applications of good quality compost can provide a wide range of nutrients to your soil.

What’s a Nitrogen Fixer?

Nitrogen fixing plants have a symbiotic relationship with specific bacteria. The bacteria colonize the plant’s roots and pull nitrogen out of the atmosphere. The bacteria uses the nitrogen and then it becomes available to the plant.

Nitrogen fixing plants include most plants in the legume family. They also include certain grasses like buckwheat but legumes are generally the most efficient. 

Why are they important?

Nitrogen is key for plant growth. Plants require it in order to perform photosynthesis. Yellow or pale leaves can be a sign that your soil lacks sufficient nitrogen. Rotating nitrogen-fixing crops through your garden replenishes nutrients in the soil without resorting to using synthetic fertilizers. 

Many nitrogen fixing crops, like those listed below, are used as cover crops or green manures. Like other cover crops they help prevent moisture loss, reduce erosion, and provide habitat for beneficial insects and fungi all while adding nitrogen to the soil. Using cover crops is in investment in soil health.

Nitrogen Fixing Cover Crops

Other legume crops like beans and peas are also nitrogen fixing. Pole beans are grown in the “Three Sisters” garden technique because they help provide nitrogen for the heavy-feeding corn.

Growing Cover Crops

Nitrogen fixing cover crops can be used in different ways. Biennial or perennial crops like clover are often grown for a season or year and then tillled under. This process adds organic matter to the soil and makes the plants’ nitrogen and other nutrients available to your crops. Alternatively winter-kill or annual crops like Sunn Hemp die back on their own and can be used as mulch. As they decompose they add nutrients and organic matter to the soil. 

These nitrogen fixing crops are also perfect for permanent pathways between rows or beds. Clover pathways in particular can be mowed through the summer. The clippings make excellent mulch for the adjacent beds.  

You can find more individual information under individual variety descriptions.