Living Soil: Nurturing Your Garden from the Ground Up
Soil is often referred to as living because it contains billions of organisms that break down animal, mineral and vegetable matter into food for growing plants. Indeed, as soil is that mixture of air, water and organic matter, it is a living base for your garden, and it needs proper care in order to remain healthy season after season. Learning the ins and outs of garden soil will allow you achieve a healthy garden that is as robust as it is lovely.
With the exception of peat, all soil is comprised of three layers: topsoil, subsoil and bedrock. Topsoil is what your plant life is mainly concerned with as it contains organic matter and organisms hard at work. Subsoil is important to plants because both water and minerals are stored here. Bedrock is what underlies it all; it is the base of all soil. There are different types of soil textures, and it is important that every gardener knows what kind of soil they have to work with.
Loam, sand and clay textured soils refer to the size of soil particles. Each texture sets up its own unique challenges and advantages. Clay soils, for example, do not easily allow air and water to penetrate, but they hold nutrients well. Naturally-drained peat soils are the best soils to work with as they are the most fertile soils. Pick up a handful of your garden soil to identify it; if it is gritty and will not stick together, you have a sandy soil. Learn to identify your soil, but also understand that your property may even contain pockets of different textures of soil, so getting a lay of the land is first on your list of priorities.
Likewise, assessing your garden subsoil is also helpful because it may point out potential problems. For instance, many new developments contain subsoil called hardpan that is a layer that prevents good drainage for your garden; it also prevents adequate nutrients from reaching plant life.
Gardeners must also assess soil acidity. Highly acidic soils may need to be treated, but knowing whether your soil is acidic or alkaline may help you when it comes to plant selection. If you purchase a soil test kit and your pH level indicates 4-5, you have acidic soil and may want to plant blueberries and rhododendrons. If your soil is pH 6-7, you can cheer because you have neutral soil that supports most plant life. If your pH is 7 and above, you have an alkaline soil and may want to select plants like lilac and asparagus.
Other great plant choices for acidic soils include strawberry, celery, potato, camellia, magnolia and spruce. For alkaline soils, consider orchid, plum, pinach, cypress and cedar. If you have sandy garden soil, consider planting onion, carrot, apple, tomato and salad greens. For clay soils, some ideal plants to grow are roses, squash, parsley, willow, dogwood and poplar.
Gardeners can generally improve their soil composition by adding compost and manure. A well composted soil encourages beneficial soil organisms, while at the same time discouraging harmful pests and disease. Compost is absolutely essential to an organic garden and additional resources should be sought in order to learn what materials to compost and what type of compost heap to build. Manure is a natural fertilizer, and your soil will benefit from its nitrogen and wide range of important garden nutrients.
Other ways to dramatically improve your soil could include digging, mulching, clearing grass, and adding such elements as grass clippings, leafmould, seaweed, comfrey and bonemeal. What you do to your soil is naturally dependant on the condition your soil is presently in. Some soils do not require any digging. Some garden soils may simply need their water drainage improved.
Whatever condition your garden soil is in, even the best needs to be maintained so that it nurtures plant growth for many growing seasons to come. Soil is the essential stuff your garden needs to grow and thrive. Cultivating your living soil ensures a beautifully healthy garden for friends and family to enjoy. To find out more about soils, check with organic gardening resources and ask questions at your local garden center or online.