Most of us take for granted the soil beneath our feet, we forget how truly miraculous it is.  We can often be oblivious to the fascinating biological properties of healthy soil and not appreciate what these properties do for our gardens and landscaping schemes.

It’s often said that organic material in soil consists of “the living, the recently dead, and the very dead.” This is a helpful way to understand the processes that shape soil and make it fertile.

The living portion of soil is made up of plant roots, and of the numerous microbes and other living organisms that improve soil structure by breaking down organic material.

The recently dead components include deceased soil organisms, green plant material and fresh manures. They decompose readily, and release nutrients quickly.

The very dead portion is humus, the final residue of organic matter breakdown that’s important for soil structure and disease suppression.

For fertile healthy soil, all three forms of organic matter should be present at all times.

What causes soil health to be poor or deteriorate?

When we embark on any building or construction project for our homes (new builds or renovations) the first thing to be done is the cutting down and clearing of existing vegetation followed by the stripping and removing of topsoil. This is done because topsoil is unsuitable as a foundational material. After construction is completed the disrupted site soils must be rebuilt in order to support plant life for landscaping. It is often the case that this essential restoration is neglected or not carried out properly and the dire or disappointing results which follow are evidence of this.

Further to this, things like walking, parking and driving on your soil can cause it to become compacted and harm its structure, allowing no room for the soil to breathe.

Soil may also just be unfit for gardening due to its natural characteristics, perhaps it is too sandy to hold water or too acidic to maintain natural healthy plant growth for instance.

Lastly, previous uses of the soil are not always known (maybe you have just moved into the property) so the soil might have been over cropped or generally mismanaged in the past by an inexperienced gardener.

What makes a healthy soil healthy?

In short, lots of things!

Healthy soils are rich in humus and other organic matter and are populated by an amazing variety of living things. Inhabitants (soil organisms) includes bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, nematodes and other creatures of varying size.

Bacteria are responsible for much of the decomposition of organic material in soils. They are usually present in topsoil in very large numbers and play an important role in converting more inert forms of nitrogen to ones that can more readily be taken up by plants. Earthworms are another vital species because they too help in the decomposition of organic matter in the soil as well as improving vital functions such as aeration, water infiltration, and drainage.

All of the organisms play a part and their collective contribution are essential for plant growth. Their excretions also help to bind soil particles into the small aggregates that make a soil loose and crumbly which is what gardens and gardeners alike seek.

A teaspoon of healthy soil contains approximately 10 billion living organisms which is more than Earth’s human population!

It is very important that all of these wonderful things are restored to the soil if they have, whatever the reason may be, been misplaced or disrupted. Soil needs to breathe, drink, and be able to retain and cycle nutrients accordingly. You need this living system to thrive to for gardening success!

What can you do to protect your healthy soil from damage and improve poor soil health?

Say no to chemicals!

No matter what soil type you have (sand, clay or loam-based for instance), there’s one sure way to kill any soil life in no time at all and that’s using chemicals. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides will upset the delicate balance of life in soil. These “quick fixes” can ultimately prove detrimental. They include herbicides or weedicides you spray on your lawn, pesticides for the bugs and fungicides for the diseases.

Chemical compounds all filter out into your soil when you water or it rains. So even if you use chemicals in one area of your garden, they don’t just stay there; those chemicals move from the surface on plants or grass and down into the soil. Some systemic pesticides will cause lasting damage for years. Using chemicals is one of the quickest ways to reverse your efforts to build a healthy, living soil. If you want a garden that sustains you and healthy plants, eliminate the toxic substances.

You also need to consider any pets you may have and think about what those nasty chemicals are doing to them. They often eat grass either as a food source or to aid digestion, so those weed killers aren’t just harming your weeds. They are equally ingested by your pets, other animals and wildlife, including birds who forage for worms and insects.

Further to this, chemical poisons are a death sentence to all the creatures hard at work in the soil. Earthworms and microbes may only be small but they are a vital part of a healthy garden. You need them to survive and thrive to help feed your plants.

No Bare Earth at any time!

It doesn’t matter whether you are growing in pots or containers or garden beds (raised or on the ground) this rule remains the same! Otherwise unwanted weeds will appear to cover the earth in order to protect and nourish it. Always cover with mulch or a living ground cover. Use whatever you’ve got to hand (or foot!) Leaves, dried grass clippings, hay, woody bark chips, etc.

Or you could plant a cover crop (also known as ‘green manure’.) Green manure are fast growing crops sown to cover bare soil. They are not planted to be harvested but to help improve your soil. There are many varieties of green manure and they all have their own set of properties and advantages. Often used in the vegetable garden, their foliage smothers weeds and their roots prevent soil erosion. When dug into the ground while still green, they return valuable nutrients to the soil and improve soil structure. You sow, they grow – and then you dig them in. Other benefits of green manures include protection of the soil surface from compaction by rain and they provide shelter for beneficial insects such as ground beetles.

Moisture matters!

All plants need moisture to not only survive but to thrive. Even more so when you’re growing food. Fruiting crops like pumpkin, zucchini and cucumbers, fruit trees as well as leafy greens have high water needs compared to many other edibles like hardy herbs. Maintaining soil moisture is a key to a healthy soil. If you live in a very dry climate, you may need to make wise choices about the plants you grow. The less rainfall you get, the more you will need to water. The more organic matter your soil has the greater the moisture holding capacity.

If you live in a high rainfall area, soil moisture may not really be an issue for you but a dry spell could cause problems. If your soil is too dry, your plants can’t access the nutrients they need. On the flip side, if the soil becomes too wet and waterlogged they can suffer from root rot and other issues because of inadequate drainage or aeration; the community down there literally drowns and so for these reasons maintaining soil moisture levels should be a priority.

Organic Matter!

Be proactive and build up your soil health. Increasing the organic matter content of soil assists in making it an appealing habitat for the essential organisms which you want to be in your soil! Proper soil texture is essential to allow plant roots to take up moisture and air. Dense clay soils can remain too moist causing roots to literally drown whilst sandy soils may drain too quickly for roots to find and absorb moisture. In all soil types organic matter encourages beneficial microbial activity and it provides some nutritional benefits. There is always some organic matter in your soil but usually not enough for your plant’s needs. The very best way to improve soil texture and give the organic content a good boost is by adding organic material such as compost, mulch and other soil amendments.

We sell Regal Blend which is a blend of our topsoil and compost and it can be used in your garden as an easy and simple method to increase the organic content.

Keep digging and rototilling to a minimum!

Digging disturbs dormant weed seeds. One way to get weed seeds to germinate is to start interfering with your soil! Keep the use of your spade to a minimum and only dig when necessary. You CAN gently and carefully use your garden fork to aerate your lawn or garden bed as this will assist with improving soil structure. However!!! Double digging (apart from being unnecessary and incredibly hard work) or turning over your soil, can quickly destroy the living community of microorganisms below.

Try to remember the soil is their home. It is their shelter where they live, work, and eat. So take care of your soil community and build healthy habitat for microbes by adding organic matter like manures, cover crops, compost and mulch.

Avoid Compaction!

Try to avoid working with the soil after rainfall, as this will compact the soil and it won’t be able to breathe. Never mow or use equipment when the soil is wet either! Try not to even walk on the soil because it can be very damaging. Waterlogged soil needs time to drain, if all the air pockets have become filled with water. Compacting the soil while wet will suffocate the soil, meaning it won’t be receiving the valuable nutrition it needs.