The best soil for your garden (and you) is organic and chemical free.
Soil is teaming with life. Worms have been touted as champion soil makers, but so too are many other creatures, including moles (*yes, it’s true, moles too!). There are bugs and animals of all kinds along with beneficial bacteria, protists, and fungi living in soil. Together these organisms create a soil food web, an intricately wonderful system.
Thank bacteria for the wonderfully rich smell of soil we all love so much
The healthier the soil food web the healthier your soil. And, you guessed it, the healthier the system we see above ground — your garden and the spaces beyond your garden, plus the food you eat!
Chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides break the chain in the soil food web, killing some or all of the organisms living in the soil or altering the relationships needed to build soil naturally. Plus chemicals added to any landscape — garden, kitchen garden, yard, large scale food crop, or lawn — find their way into our bodies. Everything from our pets to ourselves to the pollinators needed for many plants to mature from seed to fruit is negatively impacted by the use of chemicals.
When you hear the phrase “feed the soil” it’s referring to feeding the soil ecosystem. Basically, feed and water the soil organisms (in the soil ecosystem), ensure they have plenty of air (by way of good soil structure), and you’re on your way to a flourishing garden. To do this, it’s best to apply amendments like organic compost to gardens and look to fertilizers created from nature.
Compost made from kitchen scraps, yard waste, and leaves is our best way of replicating nature. We don’t feed the forests or grasslands of the world because they feed themselves. Leaves fall to the ground and plants and trees die, returning to the soil and becoming fodder for the life cycle below (and above) ground. So, as gardeners, we do our best to follow nature and copy natural systems in the way of compost. Plus, composting reduces waste. Why throw away your kitchen scraps when they can be used to help grow your garden for free?
The Best Soil for Container Gardens
Use an organic potting soil for container gardens. Potting soil is high in organic matter and designed to hold moisture while providing excellent drainage. Soil in small spaces like planters tends to become dense over the course of a season. Therefore, smaller containers need more help from us to maintain a healthy system because there’s less room for animals and other organisms to live out their lives. Which is partly why the soil in planters becomes dense — there are fewer animals tilling it with their daily activities.
The Best Soil for Raised Beds
Fill watering troughs and raised beds with a 50/50 mix of native sail or a locally sourced top soil and organic compost when planting for the first time. When amending existing beds, simply top dress with compost in the spring and fall. I also amend beds with an inch or two of aged manure in spring and fall, layering it beneath compost, particularly before growing crops that are heavy feeders, like tomatoes and corn. Though I don’t apply manure where I plan to grow root crops within 6 months.
The Best Soil for In-Ground Plots
When growing your garden straight in the ground, you can go a couple routes. If it’s a new garden, consider double digging before planting, amending with compost in the process. Have your soil tested in advance and request organic fertilizer suggestions and add these in when double digging. If you’re taking a no-dig approach, then top dress with generous amounts of compost and other organic materials like leaves in the fall before planting in the spring. See the Grow What You Love book for more information on double digging and in-ground plots.
The Inside Scoop on Mycorrhiza
There are several buzz words you’ll hear under the general topic of soil and “mycorrhiza” is one of them. We speak of mycorrhiza as if it’s a living thing — which it sort of is in an etherial way, but really mycorrhiza refers to the relationship between plants (green plants in particular) and fungi (the underground body of fungi that is not a mushroom but mycelium, stringy long root like things that aren’t truly roots). The roots of green plants form symbiotic relationships with the fungi in soil, helping both succeed at the same time. The benefit to gardeners and the environment is that plants are better able to take up nutrients, including nutrients that wouldn’t otherwise be readily available if it weren’t for this mycorrhizal relationship.
This is why it’s suggested to use some native soil in with raised beds. Native soil tends to naturally hold beneficial fungi responsible for mycorrhizal relationships. This is also why you’ll see soil and other soil amendments labeled as containing mycorrhiza.
*Truth About Moles
Moles may create unsightly runnels and disturb a neat and tidy soil surface, but this is what they do best. In the process, their tunneling action helps improve soil tilth. It’s also important to remember that moles are carnivorous. While they do sometimes inadvertently kill plants due to tunneling, they’re not plant eaters.
To learn more about composting and feeding the soil, see the Grow What You Love book.
Other articles you might enjoy: