The most important thing you can do for your garden plants is care for the soil. Treat the soil like a living organism, because it does contain billions of tiny microorganisms and bugs and worms that are so very important for healthy plants.
There is a complicated web of relationships between all the organisms that live in the soil; they feed on each other, decompose organic waste, and share nutrients. They are also able to form healthy relationships with plants that benefit both parties. Bacteria that ‘fix’ nitrogen, for example. This bacteria likes to live in and on the roots of legumes (beans, peas). It can take nitrogen from the air and convert it to a form that the plants can use. Not only do the beans and peas benefit, but whatever is planted nearby can also use the nitrogen that is introduced to the soil ecosystem. Members of the Brassica family (broccoli, kale, cabbage, etc) do very well planted next to beans because they are heavy feeders.
Organic gardening focuses on feeding the soil because having these good microorganisms in the soil makes all the difference between having healthy plants and having diseased and weak plants. The healthy microbes compete with the pathogenic (disease-causing) microbes, bacteria, and fungi so they don’t get a chance to destroy the food plant that you’re hoping to eat.
The first step in feeding the soil is to stop using pesticides and synthetic fertilizers. They ultimately do more harm than good, killing the beneficial organisms along with the harmful ones. It’s better to feed the good organisms and let them do the work of out-competing the bad. Next:
Compost, compost, compost. Organic gardeners don’t use compost just for the nutrients that can be found there. The #1 reason to use compost in your garden is for all the beneficial microbes that live in the compost. Introducing these microbes to your garden is key to growing healthy, nutritious food.
There are many ways you can complicate the composting process. If you wait until you’ve got it all figured out, you might never begin. It’s best to just give it a shot and adjust as you go. Start with the basics.
Simple composting steps:
1. learn what greens and browns are: greens are fresh, like grass clippings, weeds, kitchen scraps. Browns are dry, yellow, brown, like leaves, straw, sawdust, or black and white newsprint.
2. mix greens to browns 1:2
3. keep it moist but not soaked
4. turn it over every month or so in warm season
5. when it looks like soil, add it to your garden.
If you don’t have yard space, consider composting with worms! They live indoors very easily, and don’t smell bad at all. There’s a very good website that can give you more information about this:
Once you have great compost you can also make compost tea. And if you don’t have compost, you can make plant extracts. The following free white paper download will give you a recipe for compost tea and a recipe for making an ‘herbal tea’ plant extract that you can use to feed your soil.
It’s good to know what you’re working with in terms of soil texture and structure. There’s a simple home test you can do to determine what type of soil you have in your garden, called the soil sedimentation test. It will tell you the percentages of sand, silt, and clay that you have in your soil. These percentages can then be used to find the overall soil type via the soil texture triangle chart at the end of this post.
Why is this important? Well, the soil texture can tell you a few things about your soil. For example, clay is able to hold helpful nutrients in the soil, and exchange them with plants. Sand and silt do not have this capability. So even though many gardeners tend to groan at the thought of clay in the soil, it’s actually a very useful component of soil and can help you grow nutritious food if it’s treated right. Because of its high nutrient-holding capacity, you can add more amendments than if you had a sandy soil (as long as you add the right ones!). Sandy soil doesn’t hold nutrients nearly as well, so it would be a waste to spend money on amendments that will just be washed away in the next rainfall.
Fill a 1L mason jar 1/3 full with soil.
Add cold water until the jar is 3/4 full.
Add 5 tablespoons of liquid dish soap.
Screw the lid on tight and shake vigorously for 10-15 minutes.
Set the jar down and wait at least an hour, but preferably overnight.
You will see banding in the jar as the layers of sand, silt, and clay separate. Measure the height of the sediment in the bottom of the jar, then measure the height of each different section to determine the percentages of each. This will tell you what type of soil you have when you chart it. In this case, I had 4.5 cm of sediment at the bottom of the jar. Find each percentage on the chart below, and draw a line straight through the triangle at each of the percentages. Where they intersect in the triangle will tell you what type of soil you have. For example, if you have 60% sand, 30% silt, and 40% clay, the area where they intersect is labelled ‘sandy loam’. That’s the description of your soil type.
Once you know the type of soil you have, you will know more about the water holding capacity, air supply, and nutrient holding capacity of your soil.
Water is held in the soil by nature of the distance between the soil particles as well as the total surface area of the particles. The greater the surface area, the more water can adhere to the particles. Water’s two important properties, adhesion (to minerals and other particles) and cohesion (to itself), cause it to be held in the soil. Silt has a smaller particle size than sand, so it will hold more water due to the smaller particles having a greater surface area if compared to the same quantity of sand. It’s a larger particle size than clay, so it will give up water more readily. To recap: Clay = excellent water holding capacity, sometimes too good because it won’t give it up to plants. Silt = great water holding capacity, AND it will share more readily with plants because it doesn’t hold the water as tightly as clay. Sand = poor water holding capacity. Water tends to run right through sand, and if your soil has a high sand content, it will behave very similarly.
Pore space is the space between particles of soil. It tells us about the air supply to plant roots. The larger the pore space, the more air can reach the plant roots. Silt has a moderate level of air content. The pore space between particles is larger than with clay soils, but smaller than with sand. The water will drain out of pores when the force of gravity is greater than the force of cohesion (see above), leaving air behind. The large particles of sand create large pores that allow for good air flow, and the small particles of silt create small pores for air flow through the soil. Clay has much smaller particles, which doesn’t leave as much room for air to flow to plant roots. This also relates to compaction – if a soil is highly compacted, it will have very poor air supply due to the compression of the particles.
As already mentioned, clay is a superstar when it comes to holding nutrients in the soil, particularly positively charged nutrients like calcium and magnesium and potassium. That’s because clay has a negative electrical charge. Sand and silt do not have this capability. So the higher the clay content of your soil, the more nutrients it can hold. The sedimentation test will not tell you what kind of nutrients you have in your soil, or if indeed you have any. The negative charges in your clay might be filled with hydrogen, in which case you will have a very acidic soil. The only way to know for sure what’s in your soil is to get it tested at a lab. But, you at least know that you have the capability of holding good nutrition if you know you have a high clay content.
If you’re interested in testing your soil for nutrients (sending a sample away to a lab) and receiving a full analysis, I’m happy to offer my services.
– organic recommendations by me – Sarah Hemingway
– tested by SGS Laboratories
– find out exactly what your soil needs for balanced nutrition
– only add what’s missing
– full nutrition in the soil = full nutrition in the food you grow and eat
Please contact me (LINK) for more information.
Enter your frost dates, and watch planting dates appear for 70+ vegetables and herbs! A good portion of my winter was spent on the laptop, creating an excel spreadsheet that will do all the hard work of calculating when to plant your seeds. It tells you what to plant indoors ahead of time, and what to plant directly in the garden. It will give dates for planting out in cold frames, too. AND tell you when to expect a harvest and if you can plant multiple times for extended harvest. There’s LOTS going on in this 4-page excel file.
The days are getting longer and the promise of spring is ever so slowly becoming more believable, and now is the time to start thinking about seeding indoors. Some people I know have already started onions!
If you don’t know your frost dates, no worries. You can look them up on the Farmer’s Almanac website:
And if you’re in the States:
If you’d like to try before you buy, please download my free ‘LITE’ version of the Planting Time Calculator – it has 10 types of veggies and provides a good ‘test run’ that will introduce you to this tool.