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Three Steps to Improve Garden Soil

Soil, sun, water, and plant selection are the key components for successful growing. Get these four things right and you are on the road to a beautiful and productive garden. Of these elements, soil seems to be the most puzzling. Perhaps it is because all the action takes place underground where we can't see it. To remove the mystery think of soil as a "living" part of a garden that needs nurturing to keep it healthy.

So what is healthy soil? A healthy soil has a loose structure that allows for the free movement of water and air and is alive with microorganisms and plant nutrients. How do you create healthy soil? Soil testing, organic matter and organic fertilizer will turn sandy, clay and poor soils into a home where any plant will thrive.

Test Your Soil

There are two types of soil testing I recommend. One is a test for nutrient composition and the other is for texture.

Healthy Garden SoilYou can test the composition of your soil with a home soil kit or for more thorough results contact your local extension service. One of the things you will find out is your soil's pH. Put in the simplest terms, soils can range from alkaline to neutral to acidic, and this is what determines its pH. Most garden plants enjoy a pH level that's closer to neutral rather than being extremely acidic or extremely alkaline. A soil test will also tell you about your soil's fertility, nutrient deficiencies, and mineral content. Knowing the composition of your soil will help determine how to amend it.

The next test is for texture and it's pretty simple. Squeeze some dirt in your fist and then open your fingers. If the dirt stays in a tight clump, you've got too much clay. If it falls apart completely, it's too sandy. You want it to crumble. Clay soil has tiny particles, which increases the density. Sandy soil has large particles making it too porous.Good soil is comprised of different sized particles allowing air and water to flow freely and fostering an ideal environment for microorganisms. Microorganisms help break down organic matter and make it available to plants as enzymes and nutrients.

Good to Know: Microorganism Population Boom
Out at the farm we use Jobe's Organics Granular Fertilizers to increase the population of microorganisms. Their products contain three essential microorganisms - bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi and a unique species of Archaea. Archaea sets Jobe's apart from other microbial fertilizers because it is so aggressive, quickly breaking down material into nutrients for plants. Our tests of Jobe's resulted in better looking plants, with increased resistance to weather extremes.

Correct the Chemistry of Your Soil with Organic Amendments

Once you have the results of your soil test you can set to balancing out the chemistry. If your soil is too acidic add wood ashes or lime; too alkaline add aluminum sulfate. Cover crops such as soybeans and cowpeas are excellent for adding nitrogen back to the soil. We use greensand at the Garden Home Retreat to increase the potassium and soft rock phosphate is an excellent source of phosphorous. And you can't go wrong with aged cow, horse, or sheep manure. Not only will it increase the fertility of your soil, it helps with the texture too. When applying any type of fertilizer follow the manufacturer's instructions. You don't want to over correct.

Improve the Texture of Your Soil with Organic Matter

Compost or humus is excellent for improving the texture of soil. The nice thing about it is that you can't over apply. Using a garden fork, work the organic matter into your garden beds about six inches deep. Do make sure that the material is well broken down. I've learned from experience that under "ripened" compost can actually leach nutrients from the soil.