What you need to know about your garden soil

If there's one thing you want to invest in before planting a garden, it's preparing your soil. Soil health is one of the most important determining factors as to whether your garden will be successful or not.
Without a well fed soil, plants will not perform as well as they could. Not to mention, healthy soil is one of the best defenses against pests and diseases. When a plant is healthy and strong, fighting off unwelcome predators and illnesses is a whole lot easier.
To help you have the most successful garden possible, we've highlighted some of the most important things you need to know about your soil.
What is soil?
Mother Earth News describes topsoil (the top 6-8 inches) as a living community, consisting of tiny pieces of weathered rocks populated by a number of living organisms. Bacteria, fungi, nematodes, earthworms, insects, and many other organisms, all bring soil to life and contribute to a healthier, more diverse and productive garden. As a gardener, it's important to understand that soil is a living thing and needs just as much care and attention as the plants you grow.
Healthy soil is characterized by the following:
1. Dark and rich in color - Dark colored soil indicates that a good amount of organic matter is present.
2. Loamy texture - Garden soil should be loamy in texture, which, according to About Home, means it's crumbly and retains adequate moisture, but still drains well.
3. Neutral pH - Eartheasy points out that most garden plants prefer a neutral pH, somewhere between 6.5 and 7. This is the ideal pH where nutrients and minerals are most abundant and available.
How to tell if your soil is healthy:
1. Do a drainage test - Simply pour a good amount of water on a single spot in your garden and watch it. Quickly draining soil indicates larger, sandy particles. If the water takes a while to drain, chances are your soil is dominated by smaller particles typical of clay soils. Ideally, it will fall somewhere in between.
2. Check texture - Focusing on the top 6-8 inches, grab a handful of soil from your garden and squeeze it. If it holds its shape permanently, even after you let go, and it's sticky to the touch, it's likely clay. If it immediately separates and doesn't hold it's shape at all, it's likely made up of larger, sandy particles. If it's loamy, which is ideal, it will hold its shape some, but not for as long, and it will easily crumble when disturbed. Keep in mind it could be a combination of textures and fall somewhere in the midst of these three main categories. Also, make sure your soil isn't too wet or too dry when you try this.
3. Test pH - We suggest contacting your state's or county's local extension office. Professionally conducted soil tests are generally more reliable than DIY kits.
Tips to amend your soil and keep it healthy
The best overall method for improving your soil is to consistently add organic compost, focusing on the top 6 to 8 inches. Organic compost helps sandy soil retain more moisture, but also helps to loosen up clay soil. More importantly, organic compost feeds the soil in a sustainable way that really supports the overall ecosystem long term. Chemical fertilizers feed your plants, but they don't feed your soil.
Another method for adding organic matter to your soil is to mulch with natural materials, such as grass clippings and straw, that will break down quickly and more nutrients to the soil.
For short term amendments in response to an unbalanced pH, Eartheasy suggests adding lime to your soil to make it more alkaline and sulfur if you need to make it more acidic.
Also, consider using cover crops after each major harvest season. Eartheasy recommends buckwheat, clover, and legumes, which are all great for building nutrients back up in the soil. Before the cover crops go to seed, it's common to turn them over into the soil and allow them to break down, providing additional organic matter.
Overall, to encourage healthy soil focus on diversity and remember that soil is alive. Mother Earth News especially cautions against three activities as a gardener. First, avoid growing a monoculture, planting one species on a large area of land, which generally limits the diversity of soil life. Also, avoid using harsh chemicals, which might kill pests and diseases, but will also wipe out many beneficial soil organisms. And, finally, don't make a habit of large scale tilling, which blatantly disrupts all the beneficial creatures living in your soil.
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