In her book ‘Garden Maker’, Christie Purifoy writes, “Flower gardens don’t begin with flowers. They don’t even begin with seed. They begin with desire and vision, and they begin with dirt.”
It’s this latter element, “dirt” that we are learning more and more about its importance in the health of our plants. First, let’s give it a better name: soil. Soil health is the secret sauce in growing healthy plants in the landscape, in containers, and in the vegetable garden.
What is healthy soil?
First some basics about soil:
How do we achieve healthy soil?
If you are starting a new garden, try the no-dig approach and build your growing bed on top of the ground. Begin with layers of cardboard and newspaper, then add layers of greens and browns which are the ingredients for compost! You can even do this in raised beds. As with all things in nature, it takes time for the layers to break down. Adding topsoil or good compost into the layer mix will speed things up because they contain those hungry microbes.
In existing gardens, adding compost to the beds in the fall is the best time, but a spring application is effective, too. Some vegetable gardeners will add compost between summer and fall crops.
What kind of compost? The best kind of compost is free and in your backyard! Leaf compost is the best amendment for vegetable gardens as well as ornamental beds. This spring you may need to find a supplier, but commit to mulching and composting the leaves from your trees and your neighbor’s trees this fall.
Adding microbes to the soil at planting time is another way to work towards healthy soil. Often they are available in liquid form. A tip that I have learned is that the most effective liquid forms of microbes need to be kept chilled. Dry soil additives that contain mycorrhizae such as Espoma’s Bio-tone Starter are also beneficial. Use when planting and transplanting vegetables, perennials, trees, and shrubs.
And one more free, easy practice to improve soil health is in the perennial garden. Spring is often when we cut back any remaining dead stems. Cut the stems into 4-6” pieces and leave them there - right by the plants. The dead material will break down and provide food for the soil microbes right where it’s needed - by the plant roots. This can be a difficult practice to embrace because we love the look of a neat, tidy, freshly-mulched bed. But by letting go of what WE like, it is actually benefiting the plants, the pollinators, and in the end, us. Be part of the circle and try this new gardening ethic.
So there you have it. The secret to having a healthy garden has been there right under our noses - or rather under our feet - the whole time.
If you'd like to learn more about building healthy soil, join me for our next 'Let's Talk Plants" - a free monthly virtual gardening discussion on Wednesday, April 13 at 6:30 pm. Register by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hi, I'm Tracy - horticulturist, beauty-seeker, Word-lover, and blessed to be the owner of Bella Botanica. I also love to write about plants, gardening, and about my faith journey. Thanks for reading!