Keeping Your Soil Healthy: 6 Tips for Soil Preparation
Soil care is a year round activity, essential if you need your plants to flower and produce good crops. There is nothing worse than putting all the effort in over Winter then to watch in horror as your plants sprout weak green leaves or do not flower at all. Just like a person needs nutrients, so do your plants and they are going to get these from the soil that you give them. Have a look below for some tips on keeping your soil healthy throughout the year.
1. Rotate your crops. Keep that soil fresh.
After a long winter, it is time to prepare our beds for the new season’s crops. As gardeners, we always try to rotate our crops, some people advise on a 4 year rotation, but a 3 year rotation will suffice. This should result in fresh tasty crops, with healthy roots and no grubs. (Picking a fresh turnip and seeing grubs crawl out is not fun.)
There are 3 main groups of plants you can rotate to avoid depleting the soil Here is a great way to remember them:
- The ‘Root Group’: Root vegetables such as Carrots, Beetroots and Turnips plus potatoes. These need to have a bit of rich compost added over Winter to improve the soil.
- The ‘Long Group’ : The Long vegetables, such as Leeks, Beans, Peas and Radish.
These would benefit from some rotted manure dug into the bed during the Winter period.
- ‘Bushy Group’: Finally group three, the Bushy group, such as Cabbages, Kales, Spinach and Cauliflowers. Added lime mixed in with some good quality compost is needed to improve the soil before planting.
2. How to make your own liquid fertilizer from weeds.
This is a job for the late summer, with the aim of improving your soil quality the following Spring. Many gardeners will have seen the invasive Comfrey plant take over their garden. Huge meter high spiky leaves with blue or pink flowers and roots over 50cm long.
Take the negative situation of an overgrown garden and turn it positive. If you can control this plant to a small fenced off area it will save you money on fertilizer for years to come.
- When the plants have stopped flowering late summer, cut the plants down, just the leaves and stems and not the flowers, squash into an old tub, add water just so all the leaves are covered and pop a lid on top.
- Leave in a warm area and come winter, lift the lid off but hold your nose as the smell that will hit you is pure manure, stronger than horse manure, but full of nutrients, especially Potassium and Nitrogen.
- Add it to your beds come spring as per normal, particularly tomatoes and peppers. They love it! But dilute it first at a minimum 1/8 ratio comfrey to water.
3. Use Weed Control Fabric to prolong nutrients in the soil during growing season.
Another way to improve soil quality is to prolong the nutrient level. After having prepared the bed correctly for the growing season in early Spring, the last thing that you want is an invasion of weeds stealing those much coveted nutrients.
You will need to prevent the weeds from getting into the bed in the first place. If you cannot pack your crops tightly due to the type of crop then use a weed control cover on the bare soil.
- For vegetable crops, growing them through weed control fabric is a great idea, cutting the fabric as the plants get bigger.
- Banana skins placed around Rose and Geranium beds can cover the bare soil and provide potassium and sulphur. However bark chip looks better and will rot down eventually so that you can reuse the bed.
- Gravel is another option but for permanent beds only as it is awkward to remove when needed.
4. Feeding the Soil: Adding Fertilizer and Manure in the correct place
When soil is depleted of minerals then it may not serve its purpose for the crop that is chosen to grow there but adding a layer of manure in the wrong place during winter can do more harm than good.
Avoid adding a layer of manure below the root level then piling the soil on top. You wouldn’t want to cause a drainage problem, especially if the manure was particularly thick. A layer of thick manure can break up the capillary system already established plus limit the roots from burrowing down further and resulting in stunted plant growth.
Do mulch the manure in well and give it a good mix with the soil then spread it evenly around the bed. When it rains, the nutrients will filter through the soil to the roots along with the much needed water and hopefully create much healthier plants.
5. Drainage: Let it Flow!
Another way to improve your soil is drainage. Many people, especially Urban Gardeners, grow their crops and plants in a raised bed, or in tubs but do remember to add some drainage holes at the bottom of the tubs and raised beds.
A great idea to create excellent drainage is to place your raised beds on a few bricks or even better, ask for a spare wooden pallet from a local warehouse. This will help create a flow space for water and oxygen below your raised bed.
Gardeners that use the land may find their soil is clay. Clay is prone to water logging. Water logging can cause poor soil due to a lack of oxygen in the soil and plants need oxygen to aspire. If you happen to live in a state with clay soils, the following tips should help:
- Add sand and gravel to your soil when preparing your beds in early Spring. This improves the soil structure and reduces ‘clumps’ of soil and the water will drain away quicker.
- Another idea is to create gravel sewers underneath your bed. Dig out trenches and fill with gravel. Then add your soil back on top.
6. Test Your Soil: Changing the pH
But I am not a scientist, I hear you cry, how can I test the soil? Don’t worry, you can buy a pH testing probe meter from most large garden centers or some pH testing strips. It is essential to make sure that the pH of your soil is fit for the plants that you have chosen to grow there.
Imagine putting diesel in an unleaded car? It wouldn’t be happy. The same goes for growing plants. Blueberries and Cranberries for example love acidic soil. They thrive below 5 pH.
Planting garlic, cauliflower and corn in the same bed as the blueberries would not work as these vegetables adore neutral to alkaline soils. They love soils with 6-7.5 pH. A happy soil pH equals a happy plant.
If you do manage to get hold of a pH testing probe meter:
- Go to the bed that you want to test and stick the meter in. Make sure the soil is moist. The meter will then read the pH. It will read acidic to neutral to alkaline.
- If your soil is too acidic, add lime. However a drip feed of potassium carbonate can also double as fertilizer and a raiser of pH.
- If your soil is too alkaline, add sulphur. Alternatively add good quality acidic mulch into the soil before planting. A brilliant idea is to compost your Christmas tree. Pine needles are wonderfully acidic.
So, to keep your soil healthy throughout the year and to create a great garden full of flowering healthy blooms, prepare the soil during winter by feeding it the right balance of minerals to perfect the right pH level and protect the soil during the growing season by keeping those weeds out with a weed cover.
By taking these healthy soil tips on board, you should have a wonderful gardening season and when you have a spare moment, remember to make some comfrey fertilizer. Your plants will thank you for it.