The Dirt on Dirt: Creating Better Soils
The Ted Lare Look
No matter our aims – from aesthetic to functional – there’s something incredible about watching something grow from nothing in our own backyards. Planting a tiny seed or watching a little seedling grow from just bare dirt is an experience that is important in our gardens every year. But is it just as simple as planting in dirt?
Soil vs Dirt:
Soil and dirt are terms that we might use interchangeably in our everyday lives, but they are actually key differences that make the change from a thriving garden to a barren one.
Soil is chock-full of microorganisms, micronutrients, and a lot of the delicate differences that make your soil alive and able to support life.
Dirt, on the other hand, has lots of the main building blocks, but is missing the key ingredients for life. While you can still technically grow from dirt, it’ll take a lot more work from you and your plants will never have the healthy glow to compare with those grown in soil.
How To Create Better Soil:
Good soil is the foundation for everything in your garden. It isn’t as glamorous as talking about the hottest new styles, colors, and annuals, but it’s the beginning of a healthy looking garden and a landscape experience that’s less work and more time enjoying for you. The healthier your soil is the less problems you will have with pests and diseases.
Here’s some ways to get your dirt upgraded to soil:
Getting Off of Chemicals:
We want to help our garden be the best it can be, and tinkering with our soil comes with the territory. The good news is that what’s best for your soil in the long run is to have some restraint and do less. Soil has been doing its thing for millions of years and has itself figured out; so the less we interfere, the better.
A garden that lets natural processes regulate pests is much healthier than one that we’ve killed all the life from with chemicals – opening the door for the next infestation, and the next, and the next. Working too hard in our gardens and using too many chemicals disrupts the natural paths of things, and while it might help with one issue, often leaves openings for more issues to pop up instead.
Good soil relies on the presence of creepy-crawlies – the vast majority of which are microscopic and very beneficial to the health of your garden. Under the surface, you don’t see bacteria and nematodes working hard to transform nutrients for your plants to use. With chemistry and biology, a garden soil full of critters is essential for life.
Using too many chemicals to support your garden or to treat pest breakouts will turn a soil full of life into lifeless dirt, and could even prevent these useful microorganisms from ever coming back.
Avoid excessive fertilizer use, which can burn valuable and fragile microorganisms, and never exceed the recommended dosages on the container labels. While some of our garden favorites come addicted to these – like our high-octane annuals – not all of our plants have an equal need and many absolutely thrive off of gentler options, like organic and natural fertilizers that promote a healthy soil environment.
It is important to add nutrient-rich materials to your soil at least once a year. This can be done by adding a few inches of compost, leaves, grass clippings, straw, manure or mulch on top of your existing soil. When you mulch your garden, it begins to break down the minute it touches the soil, leaving behind nutrients for microorganisms and worms to feed on year-round.
While the process does slow down during the winter, it does still happen, and the nutrients that are produced are picked up by the plants’ roots whenever they need them.
Dig With Care:
Again, less work here is more! Tilling the garden can help the materials gain deeper contact with the organisms so the breakdown process occurs more quickly. However, tilling can also confuse organisms as they will be moved around from their normal confines. Overworking the soil can actually break down the soil ecosystem by exposing them to too much air, chops up decomposers, and brings weeds up to the surface.
Instead, take advantage of the opportunity to sit back and enjoy your yard a little more rather than working. Only till, shovel, or fork when you need – like to add compost and other mix-ins to your soil to enrich it in the spring. Other than that, leave the soil undisturbed to work hard for itself, leave the tools in the shed, and save your back.
Air is as essential to the healthy life of your soil as it is here on the surface where we breathe it. Microorganisms need it to survive and the delicate roots of our plants need the gaps to expand and grow. Every step compresses the soil and can crush these air pockets.
Avoid excessive foot traffic in your veggie and flower beds, especially after rain or being watered. We like laying boards between your rows of vegetable to avoid crushing the soil, suppress weeds, and clean up the look of your garden.
Testing your Soil:
If you are concerned about the health of your soil and would like to determine what to add to your soil to make it better we recommend testing your soil. Soil testing can be done by Iowa State University for a nominal fee. This method will tell you exactly what you should add to your gardens to create healthy soil.
You can also test the soil yourself at home by using the simple, yet effective jar method, which will tell you what percentage of your soil is sand, clay, loam, and organic matter. To do it, put 2-3 inches of soil in a mason jar, fill it 2/3 full of water and vigorously shake. Let it settle out for 24 hours then look through the jar and pick out the layers. The sand will have settled first, then the clay, then loam, and organic matter. If you have perfect soil, your soil should consist of 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay. If not, you can use the results to determine what you need to add to your soil!
If your soil needs more sand, it may be beneficial to incorporate more compost rather than sand. Sand doesn’t mix well into soil and typically will form pockets of sand in your garden rather than a good blend. Compost will translate into better drainage which is sands major use.
If your soil has too much clay, work on incorporating organic materials to increase silt materials. This will eventually result in a lower percentage of clay in the soil. Too much sand is remedied the same way, but the organic matter is used to slow drainage and hold moisture.
The ideal soil pH is between 6.2 and 7.2. If you would like to know the exact pH of your soil, you will need a litmus soil tester or to have a soil test performed by Iowa State. Based on these tests, you can then add material to the soil which helps to change the pH of the soil. If your soil tests acidic, you need to add lime or limestone to the soil. If your soil tests alkaline, you will need to add sulfur.
When applying these materials, follow the label directions. It takes time to actually change the pH of the soil, so be patient with this process and pay attention to how your garden performs. If it is healthy and producing, the soil is probably in good shape. If it is still having problems, then look into having it professionally tested.
Nature has an amazing capacity to work in your soil to correct itself if you give it the chance to grow. All it takes to turn backyard dirt to thriving soil is a little know-how, some patience, and even a little less work.