The success and health of your garden starts at the bottom – the soil. Soil is not just pulverized rocks (at least it shouldn’t be). That would be a highly deficient, dead soil.
A true soil is not just rock powder – it’s a living, breathing system.
There are many elements of a soil system that all work together to provide the perfect environment for plants to grow in, from tiny leafy ground-cover plants to the tallest tree.
A soil system is composed of:
- Dirt particles and minerals
- Organic matter (in the soil)
- Mulch (on top of the soil)
- Worms and other critters
- Fungi, Bacteria, and other microorganisms
- Larger animals & reptiles
They say it takes 1,000 years for nature to create 1/2 inch of good top soil. Obviously that’s going to depend on where you are. In the eastern United States, soil may be created 3 or 4 times that fast. In desert areas… it’s likely slowly depleting, and the expanses of deserts are growing larger. This is a phenomenon called desertification.
The great plains in central United States are often talked about as having some of the richest soil ever, and that’s the goal of every gardener. So let’s step back in time a bit, and take a look at the Great Plains of central United States.
Before the first settlers colonized the great plains there was grass as far as the eye could see, with stands of trees along water ways and the occasional mini-forest. What was going on above ground and below ground?
Above ground the grasses grew, died, and covered the ground. The trees shed their leaves. Birds and other animals ate seeds, fruit, and herbs (leaves) and left droppings on the ground. The soil was covered and protected by this vast amount of organic matter sitting on the surface as mulch.
Below ground, the worms and other critters were tunneling holes, bringing nutrients from the surface down into the soil. Small animals and reptiles burrowed into the soil where they lived and raised their young. Worms, animals, and reptiles lived and died in the soil. Bacteria, fungi, and other micro-organisms slowly broke down the grasses, bits of manure, and dead worms or other animals into a rich compost that the plants could use. The vitality of the soil was replenished and renewed each year, growing richer with each generation.
The holes made by large mammals and tiny critters allow water and air to penetrate the soil more easily, helping to prevent compaction. Without a soil covering, there is no food for worms, microorganisms and other critters. If the worms and other life in the soil leaves because of lack of food, the soil will get compacted and hard. Hard compacted soil makes it practically impossible for plants to push their roots through, and they eventually wither up and die.
Let’s try to avoid that in our gardens, shall we?
1: Protect your soil.
Just like the soil found in the untouched Great Plains, the soil needs to have a layer of mulch on top, protecting it from being blown or washed away. A good mulch is simply a layer of coarse organic matter: straw, wood chips, cover crops, grass clippings, compost, etc. Even allowing your soil to return to weeds is better than keeping it bare and exposed!
2: Feed the soil.
Help your worms to expand their population and encourage the growth of beneficial soil fungi and bacteria by providing what they need most – food and moisture. By covering your soil with organic matter, it not only protects the soil, but it provides plenty of food and nutrients for bacteria, fungi, and worms. Organic matter also has the capacity to hold a lot of water, which will keep the soil moist (but not swampy). Your living soil system will be very happy indeed.
You don’t need to till in the organic matter. Just lay it on top in a thick layer. Tilling it in would devastate the worm population. There’s just no way of getting around that. But if you lay it on top as a mulch, you’ll keep your worm population intact, provide plenty of food for your worms and micro-organisms which will work it into your soil better than tilling ever could, and you provide a protective cover for your soil at the same time.
3: Don’t let the soil become compacted.
The first two points will naturally help that, but it’s also important to keep heavy equipment and routine foot traffic off your garden as well.