Psst! Wanna Know the Secret to a Healthy Garden?

Looking for the secret to a healthy garden this year?  The magic bullet that can make your plants look and perform their best, no matter what Mother Nature throws at them?  A secret that works for edibles and ornamentals? I can sum it up in one word – SOIL. I know, it’s a little boring but it’s true.  All the magic starts with your soil.

When you have healthy soil that is alive with all sorts of organic matter, your plants will thank you. Sure, some organic matter is dead but others, like bacteria, fungi, nematodes and earthworms, are most definitely alive.  A mere handful of healthy soil can have over 6 billion organisms in it.

Did you know that healthy plants put as much as 80% of their energy into growing their root systems?  It’s natural to think about plant growth as only happening above the soil because, let’s face it, the ‘above-the-soil’ stuff is why we buy one plant and not another.

But all the really important growth is happening in the soil, hidden away from us.  Since it all starts with the soil, one of the most important things any gardener can do is feed the soil.  In turn, the soil will feed the plants. If you think about it, it’s actually quite simple.

OK, maybe simple is the wrong word.  The intricacies of soil biology and chemistry and how they are inter-related is quite complex. Without getting too technical, it’s the bacteria and fungi in your soil that helps break down all the organic matter so your plants get nourished and grow. The goal of building a healthy soil is to have lots, like billions and billions, of bacteria, and loads of fungi living in your soil.  The more the merrier when it comes to critters living in your soil.

Building Healthy Soil

Fallen leaves, branches & twigs all feed the soil

Building healthy soil is easier than it sounds.  But it can take time, and patience. Remember, some of the best ingredients for building healthy soil are probably already in your garden.

Allowing the leaves from your deciduous trees to remain in your garden, if possible, is one of the best ways to build your soil. Mulch them into your lawn in the fall and use others for compost. And don’t be so quick to clean away all the small branches and twigs that fall down. As they decompose, they help feed the soil and help your plants to grow.

◊ Start with a soil test.  If you’re not sure where to send your soil for a soil test, check with your local cooperative extension office.  Or, if you live in New England, NOFA has a list  of labs you can check out. A good soil test will help you understand what’s happening now and how to proceed.  Interpreting the results of a soil test can be frustrating so check out these helpful resources.

◊ Once you know what your baseline in, begin to correct it as needed.  Use organic amendments, compost and compost tea to start feeding your soil.  Remember to test your soil every few years to make sure your cure is working.

◊ Add different types of critters (bacteria and fungi), depending on what your soil and plants need.  Generally speaking, trees, shrubs, vines and perennials prefer a soil with more fungi in it.  Annuals and veggies prefer a soil with more bacteria in it and lawn grasses benefit from a soil with a balanced amount of fungi and bacteria (depending on the type of grass you’re growing, it might like a slightly more bacterial soil).

◊ When it comes to compost and compost teas, just remember they are easily tweaked to make them more fungal or more bacterial. The food sources used to make them influence their final composition.  Different ‘recipes’ call for different ingredients which results in a different finished products.  The end result may look the same but your plants will react differently to the different ingredients. I know it sounds confusing, but just remember all compost is not created equally.  If you’re buying finished compost, it’s OK to ask what ingredients went into the recipe.

◊ Once you get to an optimally healthy soil,  maintain the soil at that healthy level. It’s kind of like lather, rinse, repeat, just for your garden.


For more information about building healthy soil  …

Cornell University’s Soil Health website

Soil Biology Primer

Teaming with Microbes:  A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels

For more information about compost and compost teas …

Cornell Composting

Remember, feed your soil, not your plants!

13 thoughts on “Psst! Wanna Know the Secret to a Healthy Garden?

  1. Yes, yes, yes!!!! I’m reading Jeff’s book right now and am so stoked on it. I can’t wait to have absorbed all he has to teach. Soil science sounds dry before you dig in but it’s actually crazy interesting. Nice post and great resources, Debbie!

    • Gen, I’m with you. When I first heard about Jeff’s book I thought there was no way I would read it. But after taking the NOFA organic class and learning just a little about soil science I knew I’d enjoy the book.

  2. So true Debbie! The best advice I ever got from a garden club old-timer was to work on my soil. my current space is blessed with naturally good soil, the last was not – makes all the difference. It’s possible to improve really bad soil, but I’ve found it takes a lot of work, time and $$.

    • Cyndy, Those old-timers really do know what they’re talking about. I’m glad to see so many people are ‘re-discovering’ the tried and true ways to garden.

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