When growing herbs, veggies and flowers, we often take great care to place plants in prime sunbathing spots and make sure to water them near religiously. We tend to them, pull weeds and fret over any critters that may be lurking on our prized plants, but when it comes to the soil we place those basil seeds and tomato transplants in, dirt is dirt, right?
Actually, your garden soil is the most important element for your plants. Through their roots, plants acquire the nutrients they need from what lurks under the soil's surface. Healthy garden soil means better quality plants and a more productive garden. Before you start digging, make sure these five factors aren’t ruining the soil in your garden.
1. Low Nitrogen Levels
Garden soil often lacks healthy nitrogen levels, especially if you’ve previously planted crops in the area. Your plants need nitrogen to grow into mature, high-producing plants. As one of the most essential nutrients for your plants, they’ll eat up nitrogen quickly. And even if your plants don’t use up all of the nitrogen in the soil, it gets lost to runoff by the end of the season. You’ll likely need to add it back to keep this year’s plants blooming.
So, how do you know if your soil doesn’t contain enough nitrogen? Yellowing leaves can indicate a nitrogen deficiency. Or, if you notice that your plants seem to be growing particularly slow, that could also mean the soil needs more nitrogen. A lack of nitrogen will eventually stunt the growth of your favorite herbs and veggies and cause your plants to produce less fruit. Have your soil tested at your local extension office to make sure the problem actually is a lack of nitrogen.
You can restore nitrogen to your soil by adding more organic matter, such as composted manure, compost and cover crops. (In fact, adding organic matter can solve all sorts of soil problems, not just nitrogen deficiencies.) Organic matter will stimulate beneficial soil structure and encourage microorganisms to break down organic matter into nitrogen and other nutrients for your plants to munch on.
2. Chemical Fertilizers and Pesticides
You eco-conscious growers would never taint your green thumbs by using pesticides or synthetic fertilizers, but I had to include this one in the list because of its importance. Chemicals can destroy your soil’s food web. You know, those awesome earthworms, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms that release vital nutrients for your plants to feed on. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides can kill these plant-friendly underworld residents that help fend off disease and damaging insects in your soil.
3. Lack of Drainage
You’ll essential drown your precious plants and cause their roots to rot if your soil doesn’t have proper drainage. Roots need oxygen too! You can easily spot if your soil doesn’t drain well: Do puddles form in your garden after a good rain? If so, you have poor drainage. On the flip side, you can also have soil that drains too quickly. If your soil sucks up the water too fast, the soil won’t retain the water and the vital nutrients your plants need.
A good test for both problems is to dig a hole about a foot deep and fill it with water. If the soil doesn’t drain the water in 30 minutes, your soil has poor drainage. If the soil sucks up the water immediately, your soil is draining too quickly. Adding organic matter like biodegradable mulches, compost, peat moss and grass clippings can improve both problems with soil drainage.
4. Skipping the Mulch
Forgoing the mulch this season won’t do your garden any favors. Mulch keeps that world of microcritters beneath the soil healthy, and in turn, they keep your plants strong. These beneficial fungi break down organic matter into compounds that your plants can use. So, keep them happy, and layer on the mulch!
5. Too Much Foot Traffic
While you wouldn’t readily stomp on your plants, heavy foot traffic can still pose problems. All of that walking, weed pulling, digging and checking on your plants can compact soil quite quickly, which can disrupt the soil structure. Make permanent garden beds and designated pathways for walking—and use them—to keep from undoing all of your hard work.
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