Soil is the soul of your garden. Here's how to keep it healthy.

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By: Mitchel Yaciw

Mitch Yaciw/Unity Gardens

Soil is the soul of the garden. Civilizations rise and fall on the quality of their soil. 

The World Wildlife Foundation indicates that we have lost 50 percent of soil suitable for growing food worldwide. Many different factors have caused soil loss, including overgrazing, over-farming, and expanding cities and streets.

Even though we are learning to grow in water using hydroponics and aquaponics, it will never be a sufficient substitute to replace our soil (in my humble opinion).

Check out the Unity Gardens Growing Summit March 20, 21 and 22 at IUSB to learn more about your soil and other great gardening topics. All the classes and speakers are free.

So, knowing that you have a small goldmine of soil in your backyard, how can you keep your soil healthy?

It starts with the way you think about your soil; knowing the value of your soil and understanding what is going on in your soil.

The first thing to remember is that soil is alive! It is often said that a handful of soil contains more living organisms than there are people on planet Earth.

Soils are the stomach of the earth, consuming, digesting and cycling nutrients and organisms. Think about your soil as if it were your own stomach. Some things you eat give you a stomach ache, and some things can even kill you! It is the same with soil.

Start with a simple change.

So many gardeners, new and old, love to just jump in and roto-till the soil every spring.

Since many of the living things in your soil live at certain depths, when you grind it all up you kill many of them. Chopping up or displacing the living organisms to a place they cannot survive kills them.

As you build your garden, think of it as making lasagna layers that, when put together, make a tasty dish. No more tilling!!

What can you do instead?

Cover up the garden area with leaves, grass clippings, etc., every fall. In the spring, you can just pull off the top layer and reveal beautiful soil. With some light raking, your soil is ready to plant.

For the first-year garden that has never been dug up, you have a couple options. You can have it roto-tilled 12 inches deep or so. Blend in some organic compost. Remember, this is the last time you roto-till. After that, it is all about building your soil lasagna.

An alternative option is to lay cardboard on the space where you want to garden. Next, layer in compost or soil 6 inches deep, and then more cardboard, followed by leaves or wood mulch.

Do this several times, topping it off with soil and wetting down each layer. It is preferable to do this in the fall, but it works in the spring also. Now you can plant right in the soil!

For first-year gardens, you may need to enhance your soil with a little organic fertilizer, which you can put between the layers. After the first year, things will start decomposing and you will have some awesome soil to grow in.

You can garden naturally without fertilizer, but there are some important things to keep in mind.

Tips for maintaining healthy soil

Do no harm. Pesticides not only kill the bad bugs, but also kill many other things that are actually beneficial to your soil. Non-organic fertilizers can contain salts that are harmful to your soil. Why poison your precious soil?

Feed your soil, and it will feed you. What your soil really loves is organic material. Build your soil with diverse organic material — don’t use the same material every time.

  • Shredded leaves or grass clippings between the rows of plants will feed the soil. About 2 inches deep works best. Layer two or three sheets of newspaper under the clippings to form a weed barrier. More is not better! Too many layers will clump and never break down. Also, make sure your clippings are free of pesticides.
  • Another way to feed soil is to mix in aged manures. You can lightly mix the manure in using a hoe or by turning the soil with a shovel. In the fall, you can just put a layer on top of your other layers. In the spring you can top dress your garden with 2- 4 inches of aged compost.

Have your soil pH checked when you start. The pH is the acidity or alkaline of the soil. The pH determines how well your plants can take up nutrients from the soil. If your pH is off, plants may not be able to get available nutrients.

For vegetable gardening, usually the pH should be between 6.2 and 6.8. Most vegetables do well in this range, but not everything. One example is blueberries. They like acidic soil (around 5.5 pH).

Check your pH every 3 years or so. A&L Labs is a great place to get soil sampled for about $20. You can go online for instructions on how to take a sample and send it in.

Remember, it all starts with your soil. Happy gardening!

For more tips and stories about backyard gardening from Mitchel Yaciw, subscribe to the Growing With Unity email newsletter.
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