Improving Your Soil
by Ruth S. Foster

It all begins with the soil. Good fertile soil grows good plants and crops but worn out soil or backfill (called "builders' special) won't grow a hill of beans.

Good soil is a mixture of sand, silt, organic matter, and clay. The sand provides drainage, the silt, clay, and organic matter provide and hold needed chemicals. Clay acts like glue holding it together. Organic matter (stuff that once was alive) provides the microscopic organisms that help plants absorb nutrients.

How can you tell what your soil is? Take a handful and rub it between your fingers. If it's very gritty and yellowish, chances are it has lots of sand. (Typical of seashore and desert.) If it's slippery between your fingers, especially if it's bluish or red, it has lots of clay. (Good for bricks, hard for farming.) If it's crumbly and has a nice texture, it 's probably good loam. The color may be tan to dark brown. The more crumbly, the more organic matter... which is very good.

But beware of black soil, particularly if it has a sour odor, for it may be too acid and rancid to grow stuff well. It's very useful to send a soil sample for testing at your state Agricultural Extension Service.

What to do if your soil isn't healthy and alive? The universal cure is always more organic matter. Throw on good things, like manure, organic matter, vegetable peelings, coffee grounds, bone meal, lime, annual rye grass seed. If you don't turn it in now, you can in spring. The soil will be better for them. It means having a never ending compost operation. You can make compost in a pile, in a mulch barrel, in a hole.

Soil is a living medium, seething with all kinds of living creatures so we must feed them to keep it healthy, especially the worms. They pull leaves in their mouth and give out compost. Chop up all the leaves with your lawn mower in the fall, pile them on top of the sickly bed, and plow them in come spring. Do it every year.

A British trick which I learned in Africa is to dig a hole, put the soil to one side and throw in weeds, kitchen vegetable scraps, grass clippings, leaves, whatever. Then dig a hole next to it and use that dirt to cover the first hole. Next fill the second hole, dig another hole next to it and use that dirt to cover the second one. And so on - forever. This is the universal advice given to all gardeners, but there is one flaw. Mulch, though nutritious, is not fertilizer.

The real secret is the manure... It's called "black gold" by real farmers, organic farmers, and European farmers who've been successfully working the same land for centuries. It really makes for good soil and better crops. To have fertile, productive soil, and happy plants, add manure each year. Fresh manure can be applied in fall and early winter, but in spring one has to use old, compost manure because the fresh stuff is too "hot" and burns.

A friend with a horse or cow or chickens is to be truly treasured. If bereft of such friendships, there are many products on the markets. How much to use depends on what it says on the bag. They are not all the same.

Compost Bagged Manure These are composted for many months, and cured, which lets the microbes re-establish. It's these organic microbes that make manure different from chemical fertilizers. Some bagged composts have additives have like food waste, cocoa shells, coffee residue and coir as well as the usual wood chips, bark mulch and peat. Others (Bay State Organics from Massachusetts and Milorganite from Milwaukee) are made from sewerage sludge. These are fine for trees and flowers, but they are not recommended for all vegetables because of occasional high heavy metals.

Dehydrated Manures Dehydrated cow manure (Pecos or Bovung ) is just that. It's raked up from the cattle feed lots and dried. It's good stuff too, but it's "hot" so follow the directions on the bag and don't use too much. If you want to use chicken manure , it's very high in nitrogen, so very hot .

For potting soil in flowerpots, a mix of 1/3 potting soil, 2/3 garden loam and 4 handfuls of dried manure to a bushel will give excellent long term growth.

When planting out seedlings, one can put a handful of manure in the bottom of the hole, cover it with a few inches of soil and then put the plant in the ground. At planting time, give them only water. Then the roots will go down to the manure, and deep roots make drought resistant plants. The problem with liquid fertilizers is that they stay near the top and encourage shallow roots, which are subject to heat stress and drought.

When to bring in new soil? While more organic material every year will finally bring soil to good health, it takes a long time and a lot or compost, leaves, manure, and often many years. It's particularly hard with clay soil, and sandy desert soil. Sometimes though, one's soil is just so bad, it's better to simply buy several yards of good farm loam and start over. Put it down 6 or 8 inches deep and if necessary raise the bed with small walls. (That's what I've finally done in my 20 year old perennial bed which was filled originally with crummy "Builders' Special".)

Another solution is to move the garden. Pick a spot where there has been lawn for some years. Cover it with newspaper or black plastic and let the grass smother and die, which takes about a month. Or kill it all with a herbicide like Roundup™. Then chop holes and plant. The dead grass is very nutritious and organic. Cover the whole thing with bark mulch for a neat look.

Turn the worn out bed into lawn for several years while the grass renews the soil, which takes 3 or 4 years.