What You Can Do Now to Build Your Soil

Leaves can be a great source of organic matter to build the soil in your plot. Photo by Dan Cripe
As the growing season winds down, most of our garden plans are also coming to a close. But as we pull plants out of the soil, it’s also a good time to give back to the soil and plan for how to build it up again for next year.

Building the soil in your garden plot involves  a variety of practices, including rotating your crops from year to year and regularly adding compost to your soil. Adding more organic matter into your plot is an easy and low-cost way to help build your soil, and now’s a perfect time to do it!

Organic matter

Organic matter is just what it sounds like…. materials that are organic. If you want to seriously get to know organic matter, it actually consists of three distinctive parts – the living (microorganisms, insects, plant roots), the dead (fresh residues of recently deceased microorganisms and insects, plant residues, manures), and the very dead (well-decomposed organic material, or humus (not the kind you want to dip chips and veggies into)).

Soil organic matter is the foundation for long-term soil health because it:

  • releases nutrients to for healthy plants;
  • sustains essential microorganism populations in the soil which help prevent serious pest outbreaks and soil fertility problems;
  • promotes good soil tilth (the physical condition of the soil). Healthy soil should be resistant to compaction, porous, and well-aerated.

Makign Compost. Photo by Jim Streeter.

Organic matter in the garden

But first, a short detour…..

“Used to be anybody could farm. All you needed was a strong back . . . but nowadays you need a good education to understand all the advice you get so you can pick out what’ll do you the least harm.” —Vermont saying from the mid-1900’s

I’ve mentioned in previous blog posts about how easy gardening really can be, and how difficult it can seem all at the same time. I won’t go any further into the ‘education’ of soil organic matter and why it’s important and the best way to do it, in an effort to not overly complicate things (and because I’m sort of flying by the seat of my pants here). But, if you’re interested in learning more about it, you can check out this exhaustive but informative text, Building Soils for Better Crops.

...Back to Organic matter in the garden

The good news is that you’ll already be adding organic matter and thereby contributing to the building of your soil through the process of closing down your plot for the winter. If you haven’t already, familiarize yourself with this checklist so you are prepared for closing day (October 24).

Click on this image of our Closing Day Checklist to enlarge it

In the beginning of October, Garden City Harvest will deliver manure compost to each community garden. There will be enough for each gardener to take one wheelbarrow full of the compost to dig into her plot, then Voila! Organic matter will have been added.

But if you want to go above and beyond here are a few more things you can do to add more organic matter to your plot (remember, diversity is the spice of life, and the life of your garden soil):

  • Apply fallen leaves from your yard and rake them into your plot (if the leaves look diseased or have been sprayed, though, it’s best to play it safe and dispose of them some other way)
  • Grass clippings are another great organic matter booster that can be raked or dug into your plot (again, make sure they haven’t been sprayed with any chemicals). Grass clippings can also make great mulch – consider using some on your plot next year.
  • Rather than throwing your plant debris into the compost, chop it with a shovel and dig it back into your plot
  • Next year, consider using a cover crop that can be sown in a patch of your plot after some early season crops are finished

All of this fresh, but dead, organic matter will provide a feast for the microorganisms, fungi, and insect populations in your plot and bring in even more nutrients.

 A few indicators of soil health

Ever wonder how healthy your soil is? Store-bought tests can tell you the nutrient levels of your soil, but here are some more basic indicators of your soil’s health:

  • Soil color – the darker the soil, the more organic matter it contains. Healthy soil should be dark and loose
  • Minimal runoff and crusting – healthy soil should absorb water well, and not easily crust or cause water to run off
  • Sustained crop yields - healthy soil will maintain healthy yields of crops. If you notice that your plot hasn’t been yielding as much, your soil could need some TLC
  • No nutrient deficiencies – healthy soils don’t have nutrient deficiencies. Symptoms of nutrient deficiencies in plants include: small, light green leaves; yellowing or drying leaves; mottled leaves; weak stalks)
  • An earthy smell – soil should smell earthy. If your soil has no aroma, or smells mineral-y, it indicates there is not enough life in your soil
  • Lots of soil life -  If your soil has earthworms, mites, millipedes, centipedes, and sowbugs, that’s a good sign!

Wormy soil, photo by Dan Cripe