Special to the OBSERVER
I am like most gardeners, spring comes and the itch to get outside and working in my flower and vegetable beds is irresistible. We typically think of gardening in terms of beautiful blooming flowers and delicious vegetables we harvest. If we change our mindset from thinking strictly about the nutrients we need to add to make our plants grow and instead focus on improving the health of the soil, the results will be pleasantly surprising.
To remain healthy, humans go to the doctor annually, eat good foods in moderation, drink lots of water, exercise and expand their minds learning new things. A healthy soil also requires maintenance in the form of an annual checkup to assess the amount of organic matter, structure, depth, and nutrient/water holding capacity.
Let's not forget that soil is essential for all life. Healthy soil sustains plants that provide the oxygen we need to breath. Soil filters pollutants, such as pesticides and contaminants. Soil also regulates water, it controls where it flows. It is the foundational support for buildings. Soil that is healthy is more productive and efficient in its use of nutrients. Soil is alive with microscopic organisms (bacteria and fungi) and many organisms visible to the eye (springtails and earthworms). Reduction of erosion and flooding are also characteristics of healthy soil and shouldn't be overlooked during our current climate change concerns.
Some practices you can do to maintain a healthy soil in your own backyard include:
Add organic matter - Soil with organic matter added regularly has more nitrogen available to plants. Your soil should be loose and crumbly and have an earthy odor. Add manures, compost, peat moss, leaves, scraps, etc. to the soil.
Mulch soils - Using mulch can help soil and plants alike during dry spells which can reduce the need for irrigation. It can also help with balancing nitrogen and phosphorus. Healthy soil also encourages earthworms which create pores for water to follow. One acre of healthy soil can store more than 160,000 gallons of water in the upper foot.
Reduce tillage - Reduce the amount of tillage in your gardens, tilling destroys pore structure and disturbs earthworm and fungi activity.
Plant cover crops - Consider growing a cover crop after harvesting or in areas you may not be using. Natural fertilizer is created when the cover crop is turned over in the spring. Cover crops reduce nitrogen leaching into our water sources.
To improve your garden plants and yields, your best practice is to improve your soil. It is the basis of everything growing. Healthier soils will make healthier plants that are able to withstand disease, pests and drought better than those soils that have not been improved. Using these tips you can improve your soil and produce stunning results in your plantings.
Colleen Cavagna, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator