Dirt Time

Everything You Need to Know About Keeping Your Soil Healthy

Healthy soil equals healthy plants equals healthy people.

It’s true! Soil is a matrix of living organisms regulating the cycle and flow of nutrients. Its organisms interconnect and share information and immune responses to pests and disease.  

What is Healthy Soil?

Gardeners and farmers can sense good soil. In a well-tended garden, topsoil is deep, porous, and dark. It crumbles in your hands and feels moist. You can see bits of woody material and larger soil organisms inside it. It smells like “good dirt”. Studies have shown this occurs because healthy soil gives off beneficial chemical compounds that boost your immune system. Because the soil is permeable, air and water infiltrate it. Roots can easily move through good soil.

Healthy soil is full of life. It contains balance of micro- and macro-organisms. There’s a microcosm in each tablespoon of soil. If you want to know how much life thrives around your garden plants, try conducting a soil test from Soil Foodweb, Inc.

Healthy Soil Means Healthy Plants

Healthy soil leads to healthy plants.

Healthy plants have strong cell walls and vibrant color. They contain few blemishes, and they nearly glow as they reflect light. Having the right balance of soil nutrients like bioavailable minerals and moisture allows plants to grow healthy cells full of vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals which combine to build a stronger you.

One open secret to obtaining the best nutrition from your plants is to either grow your own or pick your produce fresh. Organic foods are a great start, as they are not treated with pesticides and herbicides. Look for organic, local, seasonal, and fresh whole foods. These foods are more likely to have their nutrients intact. You can grow our own food, or buy food from farmers who know how to grow nutrient-dense foods. Farmers who permaculture and use biodynamic techniques are intentionally growing nutrient-dense, healthy foods.

Know Your Soil

Get to know your soil. Every soil is different. Most soils have been damaged by deforestation, ill-informed farming practices, or construction. It’s common for our native soils to be lacking in something.

Here are two things you can do right away to get to know your soil better.

You can do a simple soil test by digging just below the surface (avoiding grass roots), and putting 2 cups of soil into a clear jar. Fill the jar with water and shake it up. During the next few days, the soil particles will settle out. Larger sand particles settle first. Then the loamy particles will settle. Clay particles are very small and may stay suspended for a while. Finally, organic matter, like bits of twigs and flakes of leaves, will float on the top. You can see varying amounts of sand, clay, and silt you have in your soil, and how this relates to the quantity of loam and organic matter. This can help you determine how you should work with your native soil. If you have a lot of sand, for example, your soil will drain quickly. This means you will probably need to water it more often.

Another important thing to do to get to know your soil is to do a professional soil test. If you suspect lead is present in your soil, contact your county health department and ask them to test your soil for heavy metals. County extension agents or soil and water conservation districts also do general soil tests. These can help you determine if your soil is lacking in a key mineral or substance.

Add Key Minerals

Adding the right soil amendments depends upon the mineral content of your native soil. In my Midwestern, limestone-based soil, I usually add rock phosphate and Jersey Greensand. These are mined minerals that pack a punch in garden soils.

Broccoli, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables feed heavily on calcium. You might think that by living on limestone-based soil these veggies would be happy in my garden, but they aren’t. They need a form of calcium that they can take up easily. So, I add crushed and powdered egg shells from our breakfast to help them out. To do this, I waited until the shells were dry. Then I crushed them in our mortar and pestle. I took the powdered shells out to the garden, pulled back the mulch, and placed the shells. Then I moved the mulch back in place. Greensand, rock dust, bone meal, and kelp are all great sources of these important minerals.

Every area has a different soil composition. You’ll need to adjust which minerals you import into your garden accordingly. A visit to a local nursery or garden center can provide valuable insights into the soil common to your area. A soil test from the county agricultural extension office may come in handy for a more complete picture. Check out this map of the dominant soil orders in the United States.

Bring on the Mushrooms

Unless you are growing grains or other grasses, you will want to top your soil toward a fungal dominant condition. Fungi are vital part of soil life. We’ve known for decades that fungi connect trees in forests and allow them to share information through an exchange of sugars and chemicals. This allows the interconnected trees to detect pests or diseases in one part of the forest and begin to produce an immune response before the disease or pests get to them. Now, this study has been replicated and shows the same relationship between fungi and plants smaller than trees.

Incorporate Organic Matter

Whether your soil is too sandy, full of clay, or likely to leave salt, adding organic matter can help bring your soil into a healthy balance. By incorporating compost into your garden and mulching your plants, you build up the organic matter and carbon in your soil. Most soil in North America contains 2 to 3 percent organic matter. Healthy soil can have between 19 and 25 percent organic matter and carbon. This is exciting for those of us worried about carbon and climate change, because it means that with appropriate farming and gardening, we can pull carbon from the environment around us.    

If you are eating a healthy diet, the compost created in your kitchen will bring a balance of minerals and nutrients to your soil and pass that onto your plants. From there, it comes back to you.

Red composting worms

Worms Are Your Friends

Red wigglers and other earthworms can build excellent soil. Although earthworms are not native to North America, and red wigglers won’t survive a freeze, these little critters are very useful. Vermicomposting, which is composting with worms, is one of the best ways to create healthy, fertile soils. When other dirt bugs arrive, welcome them. They are a sign your soil is becoming a healthy ecosystem. Not all bugs, however, are good news. Some soil organisms harm your plants and some insects can do the same. But you allow your soil to become a balanced, healthy ecosystem, it will repel real threats naturally. Check out this infographic about biodiveristy in soils.


Learn more about healthy diets and nutrient-dense foods here.

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