Building Healthy Soil
Step by Step
Step 1: When first making the bed: Add a layer of 1" Composted Cow (or other) Manure and 1" Compost or Humus. If Manure is not available, use 2" of Compost or Humus, plus Poultry Litter soil amendment at the rate specified on the bag. Also add Worm Castings, Rock Dust, and Mycorrhizae (if you can find this) at the rates specified on the bags. No need to dig amendments into the soil - just put on top. (When planting, there is no need to add further amendments.) Water well, then follow with 4" of mulch and water again. Otherwise, the mulch may rob the soil of the water sprinkled on top. Watering also helps fertilizer to get into the soil. Over time, the mulch will decompose and add to the soil structure. Digging in amendments is not necessary and can harm the soil structure. Remember to always feed through the mulch, and to feed the soil, not the plants. You are setting up and maintaining an entire ecosystem, which includes billions of tiny animals, fungi, and plants. All are necessary parts of the whole and none can be healthy or productive without the others. The goal is to eventually have a self-sustaining system with as few outside inputs as possible, but this will take time. Outside materials brought in are a faster way to jump-start your ecosystem, but if you already have these things on site, by all means use them.
Notes: Your mulch can be any garden detritus, or bought in a bag if necessary. Obviously, it is better not to buy it, but if you must, be sure it was sustainably produced. Wood mulch and thick trimmings are just as good as smaller shredded stuff – ideally you would have a mixture of both. In the end, you will be growing your own mulch and you won’t even have to apply most of it, as it will fall right where it grows. (See below.) Mycorrhizae are soil organisms that form mutually beneficial relationships with the plants and keep down harmful things that live in the soil. They can make a huge difference in the health of your garden. Rock Dust is powdered rock which adds beneficial trace elements to the soil and is best applied yearly if you can get it. At least try to start out with some. A good-sized bag will last most gardens many years. Worm Castings have loads of beneficial bacteria in them as well as being a good fertilizer. Don’t use more of any amendment than what is specified on the bag. These are fairly concentrated nutrients - too much would be a waste of money and nutrients, and may actually be harmful.
Step 2: Never step into the beds! Plan your beds with stepping stones (wood planks will rot very fast) so people know where to walk, and so there is no stepping into the soil of the beds for maintenance. (Place them after mulching, so they don't get buried. Every time you mulch deeply, remove the stones first and place them back afterward.) You should be able to reach any plant and do what you need to (weed, prune, harvest) without stepping off a stepping stone into the bed. Stepping stones spread the weight over a larger area, keeping the soil from becoming compacted and allowing nutrients, air, and water to move freely as needed. This is very important!
Step 3: Every 2 months: Add Poultry Litter soil amendment and/or Worm Castings at the rate specified on the bag. Again, just spread it right on top of the old mulch. Water it in. Then use Seaweed as a foliar feed. (This comes in powdered or liquid form and can be applied with a hose-end applicator like the one that comes with MiracleGro. It is best not to do this just before it rains or your sprinklers go on, because then the plants will not get the full benefit of the feeding.) The Seaweed has trace minerals and (along with leaving the prunings under each plant) should keep the plants from developing deficiencies (see below). If you still end up needing iron or manganese, etc., then use it. Also, Epsom salts are beneficial for some plants, such as Roses and Palm trees. Alternatively, you can use seaweed that you gather on the beach, after soaking it in water for a few days to leach the salt out of it. Don’t dump that water – research shows that it can be used (diluted) to help your tomatoes produce tastier fruit. Apply it once the plans set baby fruits for the best effect. Watch the containers or beds you use it in to make sure salts are not building up. To be extra safe, you could use it only on containerized plants, then compost the spent soil before adding it to the garden beds.
Step 4: When pruning: Leave trimmings to decompose under the plants they came from. No need to dig them in - just leave them on top of the mulch. This will enable the plants to recoup the nutrients and minerals they used to grow what got trimmed off. After a couple of days they will brown and blend into the mulch and any dead leaves already there. Remember – the best mulch for any plant is its own leaves and trimmings, because they contain the nutrients that were used by the plant to grow them.
Step 5: Every 6 months: Move your stepping stones. Add a layer of 1/2" Cow Manure and 1/2" Compost or Humus. If Cow Manure is not available, use 1" Compost or Humus, plus Poultry Litter soil amendment (if you have it). Also add Worm Castings. Again, just put it all on top of the old mulch. Water well, then follow with 2" of mulch and water again. Put your stepping stones back.
Step 6: Every year: Repeat Step 5, adding Rock Dust at the rate specified on the bag.
Within a year, you will start to see nice, fluffy soil with lots of organic matter in it that will grow healthy plants with no need for additional fertilizers or insecticides. And it will get better every year, as long as you keep adding organic matter to your beds! Nematodes thrive in sandy soil and are repelled by organic matter, so you will have much less trouble with them. Eventually, you will be able to grow tomatoes, peppers, and other nematode-sensitive plants right in your rich, fluffy soil, but that will take a few years to happen. In the meantime, grow these in large pots. If you have a problem with caterpillars in an area not being used to attract butterflies, try spraying with BT, which attacks only caterpillars. Soap sprays can be used to control fungus and many other leaf spot troubles. [Chemical fertilizers are more likely to cause plants to have pest problems. They also kill beneficial soil organisms and drive away earthworms. This destroys the soil food web, which is necessary for healthy plants. Healthy plants have much less trouble with pests. Stressed plants produce scents that attract them.] Plant things that will attract beneficial insects, like Nasturtiums, Dill, Fennel, etc. among your cool season vegetables to get them right where the pests may be.
Make sure you don’t remove any organic matter from your garden except what you harvest, and return the trimmings to your worm bin or compost bin so they go back in the end as well. Plant lots of legumes throughout your beds, and use the appropriate inoculant when you do. (Look this up - many seed companies sell inoculants for the legumes they supply.) This will give them maximum ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, and that nitrogen will be distributed by their roots as well as the mulch they produce. You may want to grow additional fast-growing plants that will produce lots of trimmings to use as mulch. Moringa is an example of a fast-growing legume that can be trimmed often for this purpose, not to mention its nutritious leaves. You can trim it, eat some of it, and use the rest as mulch, while the roots produce nitrogen that will be released to other plants growing nearby. Win-win all around!