Build Better Garden Soil

Caring is the key to growing better garden soil and more of our own food.

  • Mulch
    Build fertile soil by using mulches and cover crops such as this fast-growing buckwheat.
    Photo courtesy DAVID CAVAGNARO
  • Soil
    Instead of tilling, Harvey Ussery recommends using a broadfork to loosen the soil for planting.
    Photo courtesy MICHAEL FOCAZIO
  • Soil Organisms
    A host of tiny soil organisms live among soil particles and are often fed by the carbohydrates released by plant roots.
    Photo courtesy MICHAEL ROTHMAN
  • Composting Crops
    Compost whatever organic materials you have on hand, including yard waste such as grass clippings and fall leaves.
    Photo courtesy LYNN KARLIN
  • Compost For Fertility
    Applying compost to your crops annually is the one of the best ways to build soil fertility.
    Photo courtesyDAVID CAVAGNARO

  • Mulch
  • Soil
  • Soil Organisms
  • Composting Crops
  • Compost For Fertility

Soil is the key to health, both for ourselves and for the animals and plants we depend on. But soil “in good heart,” as farmers used to say, is not something we can take for granted. For gardeners and farmers, caring for the soil must always be our first priority, and the process of building soil fertility is vast and complex.

The best question to ask is not “What is the best soil care?” but “What is the best soil care for this particular piece of ground?” Over the seasons, the soil itself becomes our teacher and shows us which practices lead to beneficial changes.

Let’s begin with this intriguing question: Why is it that in natural soil ecologies, soil fertility tends to accumulate spontaneously over time, while human agriculture often leads to drastic declines in soil quality? Whether we look at prairies, bogs or forests, we find that topsoil tends to deepen and become more fertile over time. Why are humans more likely to destroy than to build soil quality, when natural systems operating on their own produce the opposite result?

One implication is obvious: The key to soil management is imitating natural systems. But perhaps the best answer to this riddle is that topsoil is alive, and any approach to agriculture that treats it as an inert substance is almost certain to be destructive.

What is Topsoil?

Topsoil is formed from tiny particles weathered or worn from their parent materials (rock, of various types). Both the chemical composition of the parent material and the average particle size help determine fundamental characteristics of soil — whether it is acid, alkaline or neutral; and whether it is sand (large particle size) or clay (extremely small particle size). But a layer of small rock particles is not “soil,” and it is not capable of growing a crop.

Healthy topsoil also consists of a complex community of living creatures, and each class of organisms has its own strategies for feeding itself, adapting to environmental conditions and coexisting with its neighbors. Any practice that destroys some or all of those classes of organisms is likely to reduce soil fertility.

Angela Trilli
4/5/2013 8:50:05 PM

How much tilling is too much? Is once a year too much?

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