Building healthy soil is the key to healthy plants

Healthy soil grows healthy plants.  If you want a vigorous, productive garden, protect and improve your soil.

Soil is made up of minerals, air, water, and organic matter.  This skin of the Earth anchors and grows our food, filters our water, and recycles vital nutrients like carbon.

How do you build healthier soil?  You feed it.

Compost, chipped leaves, untreated grass clippings, and other organic amendments can be turned in or used as mulch.  Cover crops can be planted in the fall and turned into the soil in spring.

This organic matter lightens heavy clay soils.  It improves soil structure.  It helps the soil hold water and nutrients.  It helps to suppress disease and feeds beneficial soil organisms.

Yes, soil is alive.  An intricate community of microbes, fungi, beneficial insects, worms and more lives beneath your feet. Keeping this gang happy helps your plants growing their best.

That’s why we discourage tilling.  When you till, you disturb the soil community, literally turning their world upside down.  You also damage soil structure and bring weed seeds to the surface.

So till less or not at all.  Instead, use a garden fork or broadfork to gently loosen soil, if needed. Broadforks are simply wide forks you rock to aerate soil.

Seedlings in soil

How else can you improve your soil?  Get a soil test.  For $10 to $15 you can find out just what fertilizer your soil needs – and doesn’t need.

Soil tests can save you time and money and keep excess fertilizers out of our waterways.

Getting a soil test is easy.  Download everything you need at the Home & Garden Information Center website.

Next, go deep.  Scoop a few soil samples in your garden, going at least 6 inches down.  Mix the sample and let it dry.  Scoop a cup or two into the bag, box it up, and mail it to a lab.

You’ll have your results in a week or two.  The test will tell you your soil’s pH, nutrient levels, and percent of organic matter.  You’ll also get specific fertilizer recommendations for what you’re growing.

You can also help keep soil healthy by not walking on it, especially when it’s wet.  That causes compaction.  Air, water, nutrients, and roots have a tough time moving through dense soil.

Instead, create paths or strategically place stepping stones so you can walk between rows of plants.

I know you’re eager to garden, but don’t work wet soil.  This also causes compaction.

To test if your soil is dry enough to work, grab a handful of and squeeze it into a ball.  Now, bounce it gently.  If it stays intact, your soil is too wet to work.  If it crumbles it’s ready.

And never, ever till wet soil.  That wrecks its structure and the soil community.  Think Armageddon.

Great gardens grow from the bottom up.  Protect and improve your soil to ensure it rewards you with year after year of productive plantings.

Photo of ornamental garden

Well-tended soil yields beautiful results such as the flowers at the Washington County Master Gardeners’ Boonsboro Library garden.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

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