It’s aliiive!

It can be funny to think of your soil as a living thing but it absolutely is! Soils are complex ecosystems full of living organisms. Just like your plants, soils need things like good nutrition, air circulation, and good old H2O to thrive.

In a natural ecosystem, soil is usually capable of replenishing its fertility on its own. However, most gardens are not natural ecosystems, so your soil will probably need help. Garden plants (especially vegetables) can be “heavy feeders,” drawing a lot of nutrients from the soil to grow. In your garden, it’s up to YOU to get those nutrients back to the soil!

In this post:

    1. Assessing the condition of your soil – the easy way!
    2. Incorporating organic matter
    3. A note on manure
    4. Assisting your soil during the growing season


1. Assessing The Condition Of Your Soil – the easy way!

Test for biological activity:

A very easy thing you can do to assess the quality of your soil is to dig up one cubic foot and sift through it for earthworms. 10 or more earthworms in a cubic foot of soil is a very good sign. Earthworms thrive in high-quality soil. Good populations of earthworms probably mean your soil is in good shape. However, the fewer earthworms you find, the more assistance your soil is likely to need.


Test for nutrients:

You can test your soil’s pH level, salinity, organic matter, Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). It’s a good idea to perform this type of test regularly to make sure you don’t over or under-fertilize your soil, especially if you use synthetic fertilizers. Soil testing can be done at home using a simple soil test kit, or contact a lab for more comprehensive testing.


Test for soil composition:

Soil is made up of a matrix of silt, clay, sand, and organic matter that facilitates healthy soil functioning. Organic matter is also the “food” of the soil. You need to continuously replace what is used by plants and soil-dwelling organisms because if you have too much clay or sand, you’re in trouble!

You can check your soil composition easily by moistening a handful of soil until it is a wet, fudgy consistency (but not dripping!)

Squeeze your hand to force ribbons of wet soil through your fingers like play-dough. The soil should form ribbons about 1-2 inches long before breaking. If the ribbons reach 3 inches or more, you have too much clay. If you cannot form ribbons, you have too much sand. If you find there is an excess of clay or sand, incorporate more organic matter into the area.


2. Incorporating Organic Matter

Put very simply, think of organic matter as anything that decomposes in soil. Plants, roots, vegetables, fallen leaves, and bark are all examples of organic matter.

Organic matter supports healthy soil functions by feeding beneficial soil-dwelling organisms, helping to regulate temperature and moisture, promote aeration, and so much more. Without organic matter, beneficial populations of fungi, bacteria, and insects will drop, important tunneling animals like earthworms and moles will migrate into healthier areas, and the soil’s matrix of silt, clay, sand, and organic matter breaks down and becomes compacted.

In the example of a natural ecosystem below, there is a lot of organic matter on the ground. That is exactly what the soil needs to break down and restore its fertility. This natural cycle of growth and decay isn’t usually possible in a garden so it’s your job to incorporate organic matter back into your soil in one of the following ways:

Using Compost:

Compost is sometimes referred to by gardeners are “black gold” because it is so valuable in the garden. Compost is made when organisms break down and decompose organic matter like food scraps, to create an incredibly nutrient-rich product. Incorporating compost into your garden will increase the organic matter in your soil and provide an enormous amount of essential nutrients to your plants.

Compost can be spread over your garden beds about 3 weeks before planting begins in spring, or after the growing season is over in fall. You can gently incorporate it into the surface of the soil but it isn’t necessary. Rain, tunneling animals, and soil-dwelling organisms will work together to distribute the nutrients throughout the soil.

You can purchase finished compost from garden centres, farm supplies, and co-ops, but you can make your own too!

Using Natural Mulches:

Natural mulches are things like leaf litter, grass clippings, shredded bark, untreated wood chips, sawdust, straw, seaweed, and undyed paper/cardboard. Natural mulches can be incorporated in spring and fall to build up organic matter in the soil. Incorporate larger amounts of natural mulches in the fall when they will have time to break down before the extremes of winter. Otherwise, incorporate a smaller amount in spring to maintain good soil composition for new seedlings.

One very easy way to do this is to rake fallen leaves into garden beds in the fall. Leave them on the surface to overwinter. Then in the spring, mulch if necessary and gently turn them into the soil at least 3 weeks before planting begins.

Using Cover Crops:

Cover crops (sometimes referred to as “green manure”) are excellent for building organic matter in the soil, among other things. Some examples of cover crops are Buckwheat, Oats, White Clover, and Alfalfa.

Cover Crops are planted on bare soil at the end of the growing season to provide natural weed resistance, regulate soil temperature and moisture, and prevent erosion. They house beneficial insects both above ground in their foliage and below ground in their root zones. They can also be used strategically to break weed and pest cycles. In spring, they are mulched or tilled into the soil where they break down and enrich the soil.


3. A Note On Manure

Manure that is ready for use in the garden is called “well-rotted” manure and, like compost, it is an incredibly nutrient-rich substance. In general, it’s best to err on the side of caution when it comes to incorporating manure into the garden. While it has nutritional benefits, it will not contribute as much to healthy soil composition. Additionally, if it is not truly well-rotted, it may contain high levels of ammonia or nitrogen which can burn some plants and roots.

Incorporate manure into the garden when the growing season is over. Just like compost, you can gently work it into the surface of the soil but it isn’t necessary. Rain, tunneling animals, and soil-dwelling organisms will work together to distribute the nutrients throughout the soil. Cover the beds with natural mulch and the manure will enrich the soil over the winter.


4. Assisting Your Soil During The Growing Season

You will begin to feel like your soil is your baby. With some careful attention, you can keep your soil healthy forever. As you develop your skills, you’ll begin to notice subtleties in the colour, texture, drainage, and smell of your soil that can alert you to changes in its condition.

You can also protect it throughout the season by:

Mulching around the base of plants to smother weeds, house beneficial insects, and regulate moisture in the soil

Walking along specific pathways in the garden to avoid compacting the soil

Avoiding pesticides or fungicides that might damage beneficial soil life



Take care of your soil and your soil will take care of you! Tell us how you protect your soil in the comments below and tag us in your garden photos (@oscseeds) on Facebook and Instagram!

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Want to learn more? Read more: Why And How To Protect Your Garden This Winter

4 thoughts on “Building Soil Health – the cornerstone of success in the garden

  1. the article on soil was interesting, however I would like to see a similar article on taking care of soil where there is grass/lawn.

  2. I’ve often wondered what the “shelf life” of leaf mulch (one year old) is and so I like the idea of applying it in autumn for spring planting.
    My one year old leaf mulch could be considered as compost?
    But you refer to freshly mulched autumn leaves; how much…2 to 3 inches?

    By working the mulch in “gently” I presume you mean not to turn the soil over by the shovelfuls.
    In fact, should the soil ever be turned over massively except when amending the soil on a massive scale.

    Thanks for this ………Ingo

  3. I plant all my vegetables and some flowers in large pots and containers due to living in a rocky area where there isn’t enough soil and being surrounded by trees that spread roots in any raised garden that I’ve ever built. The problem I’m having is, despite the countless bags of good quality soil mix, manure and compost (home made, year old) that I incorporate every year into these planters, by mid-season (around mid-july) all the leaves of my vegetables start to turn a light green, then yellow and eventually die prematurely. I make sure I water regularly but not too much, more often in hot weather (once a day in early morning or evening), I check for insects or disease, and even fertilize at the first sign of yellowing, all of this with no success.
    I’m wondering if the soil might be too rich and comprised of too much organic matter? Should I be adding sand or clay to the mix as well? The appearance of the soil is loamy but when squeezed there is no ribbons.
    Where am I going wrong?

    1. From your description there are common causes:
      1) High pH in the mixture.
      2) Excessive saltiness in the mixture.
      3) Unfavourable air and water relationship in the mixture.

      Of these three, the third often is the culprit. Also known as poor soil structure–low porosity. Plants growing in containers need available water, drainage, and air in the root zone. In peat moss mixtures, perlite is a favoured ingredient for increasing porosity. It can be used in composts too. Garden soil mixes and manures aren’t recommended in containers because despite working well in the field, once the soil mix is in the container, porosity and structure are such that roots die from lack of oxygen. I use volume 80% peat moss + 15% perlite + 5% vermiculite to which I add a non-ionic wetting agent. Containers have bottom exit holes to allow for drainage.

      There are commercial mixtures that work well. By name a famous one is Pro-Mix. But all the peat moss companies make container mixtures.

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