Restore Your Soil, Harvest the Benefits
Apr 02, 2016 02:00AM
● By Ariana Rawls Fine
Growing robust flowers, vegetables, herbs and fruits takes care and time, but building healthy soil is a vital step in increasing the yield and health of your plants. The “biological beauty” of the soil will affect the physical bounty of your plants. Understanding the nutrient composition of the soil you are working with and using practices which support carbon restoration can make a big difference to you and your gardens.
Although there are a number of things you can do to restore your soil to its own optimal health, a good place to start is defining the “don’ts”. Fungicide, antibacterial, herbicide and insecticide products—whether organic or conventional—can indiscriminately kill healthy organisms and insects in addition to their intended targets. By doing so, you inadvertently affect those that add nutrients to the soil and help control unwanted pathogens. Excess fertilization is another issue. By not knowing the chemical makeup of your soil, you may be providing your soil with too much of one type of nutrient and not enough of another, explains Joe Magazzi, MS, the president and co-founder of Green Earth Ag and Turf LLC (GreenEarthAgandTurf.com) in Branford. He recommends getting a soil test to optimally provide your specific planting space with the nutrients it needs to provide to the plants.
A basic nutrients test, such as one offered free to homeowners through The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CT.gov/CAES), will show you the general levels of your soil’s texture, organic matter, pH, phosphorus and several other components. For more information, the University of Connecticut’s Soil Nutrient Analysis Laboratory (SoilTest.UConn.edu/) in Storrs offers soil tests that help identify nutrient deficiencies and imbalances starting at $8 per sample for homeowners. The latter two will tell you what is in your soil; to go more in depth, laboratories such as Logan Labs (LoganLabs.com) in Ohio will test your soil to give you a snapshot of the exchange rate of what your soil gives out to the plants. Soil Foodweb New York, Inc. (SoilFoodwebNewYork.com) is another soil biology option that also offers individual assays. The combination of the latter and the state testing will give a good, low-level snapshot of the biology in the soil for the average homeowner, says Magazzi.
Support Healthy Bacteria and Fungi
It is also key to bolster carbon and nutrients in your soil. “Bacteria and fungi are the primary decomposers in the soil. If they weren’t present, we would be standing on a giant pile of dead plant and animal matter that never breaks down. The carbon and nutrients that make up all living matter is constantly recycled through the actions of the soil biology,” Magazzi explains in his “Soil Biology Basics, Part I” article in 2012 for Ecological Landscape Alliance (tinyurl.com/SoilBioBasics). In addition, bacteria and fungi help deliver nutrients and encourage plant growth.
There are two ways to increase their effectiveness. Bio-stimulation is working with the microorganisms in the soil that you currently have using fertilizers such as manure or seaweed to add micronutrients. The second, bio-supplementation, adds microorganisms. Similar to the use of probiotics for human gut health, soil restoration can also be bolstered through the use of beneficial microbes.
Some of the quickest ways to address the general deficiencies in soil is to add compost, use a verma compost or create a compost tea. The tea can be brewed by adding several layers of compost to a large container and then adding water; the nutrient-rich water can then be used to water or spray your plants. Soil probiotics—available commercially in liquid, powder or as a coated seed—give an extra biological boost that accelerates a more balanced soil microbiology. As an example, Quantum Growth, a highly concentrated probiotic liquid produced by Green Earth Ag and Turf LLC, contains live microbes and humates (rich organic matter) that can help deepen root growth, reduce fertilizer runoff and improve disease resistance for plants, trees and turf.
The Critical Importance of Carbon in Soil
Another component of soil health is the level of carbon in your individual space. It is important to remember that plants protect the carbon in your soil while unplanted soil oxidizes carbon.
There are ways to keep as much carbon as you can in your soil, explains Jack Kittredge, the soil carbon program coordinator, a former policy director and a 30-year veteran activist for the Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA.org), and the editor of The Natural Farmer. Kittredge stresses keeping the ground covered to avoid carbon seepage, including keeping the soil planted as much as possible with cover crops or legumes when you have harvested your produce plants and diversifying your plants using crop rotation practices. He discourages tilling or double digging, as many farmers practice as their main way to cope with weeds. He has several suggestions for home gardeners. Instead of tilling the soil, Kittredge suggests aerating the soil using a broad fork; it opens up channels with its tines to get air and water in without disrupting soil life and fungal networks that you want to encourage in the soil. You can also experiment with perennials to keep soil, including asparagus.
To deter weeds, laying down a clear plastic covering for a couple of days (the higher the temperature, the less time it needs to remain) when it is hot enough outside to kill weed seeds will help prevent weeds from growing in the first place. Other materials that prevent sunlight from getting to the weeds include black plastic, cardboard and mulch.
Cover crop cocktails are a great way to diversify the biology of your soil while retaining and restoring the carbon. Sold through most retailers, they usually include 10-20 different seeds from varying types of plants, including grasses and legumes. The advantage of this mix is that the varieties serve different purposes—some are deep-rooted, some have wide leaves, some thrive at certain times while others take longer. At any point, a part of the cover crop will be doing well, says Kittredge.
Increasing the carbon content also positively influences your soil’s ability to retain water, which decreases soil erosion and diminishes the amount of water you need to use on the plants.
Good practice is, first and foremost, not destroying the biology that is already there, Magazzi emphasizes. Second is building upon or correcting your soil biology to be as healthy and invigorating to your plants as possible, just as we do with our own health and bodies.
Ariana Rawls Fine is editor of Natural Awakenings Fairfield County. She resides in Stratford with her family.