A healthy, living soil is key to those bumper harvests and will increase the nutrient density of the food we grow and eat. If we don’t consistently focus on our soil health, we will notice our crop yields will start to dwindle as the nutrients in the soil are depleted. If our plants cannot get the nutrients they need then they will not be able to grow into strong healthy plants which also means they won’t be able to deliver us a good harvest.
Now the temperatures are cooling down quickly and we are starting to clear our plots after the summer growing season here are some easy things you can do now to help create and maintain a healthy, living soil.
Leave living roots in the ground
This is really important. When cutting back your vegetable plants that have gone over or looking past their best consider cutting off at the base and leaving the roots in the ground. As plants grow, they capture carbon from the atmosphere and they send a lot of this carbon to their roots which is then fed to the organisms in the soil. In return, the soil organisms will deliver nutrients from the soil to the plant. If we leave plant roots in the ground then the soil organisms can still feed from the plants which will help the plants to decompose and will help the soil organisms to thrive. You wouldn’t stop eating for the winter so why would you starve your soil?!
Mulching helps to increase the organic matter within the soil but it also helps the soil to retain moisture by reducing surface evaporation. Keeping water within the soil will help the plants no end in times of drought and warm temperatures like we experienced this year. If the soil can hold onto water it will also reduce the number of trips you need to make to the water butt!
Mulching will also help to control weeds by blocking the light to the weed seeds and preventing them from germinating.
There are plenty of options for free, natural mulches such as cardboard, compost, grass clippings and chopped leaves. The organisms in the soil will help these natural materials to break down over time thereby improving the condition of your soil. The more ‘alive’ your soil is, the quicker these materials will break down. You can also do the ‘chop and drop’ which means chopping up the plants you want to dispose of and leaving them on the soil surface as food for the soil organisms – they will soon drag this material into the soil. Have you ever seen anyone clearing up the forest at the end of the year? No? Exactly! The forest drops its leaves to create a natural mulch and they naturally decompose into the soil. A forest maintains its own little eco system by letting nature lead the way. As gardeners it is important to create and nurture our own little eco systems!
Cover the soil by growing cover crops
Nature does not like bare ground…. have you ever noticed if soil or other areas of land are left alone that weeds will quickly appear? This is Mother Nature’s way of making sure that the soil is covered. If we leave our soil bare, we are allowing water and nutrients to evaporate into the atmosphere when in fact we need it most in the soil.
Green manures are particularly useful as a cover crop. They are grown to help to retain nutrients within the soil but they also help the soil structure and prevent soil erosion. Green manures are usually cut down and left to decompose naturally or some will be killed by frost and become a mulch. By leaving green manures to decompose in the soil they will also help to increase the organic matter content. There are many different types of green manure and to increase nutrient diversity you should try and mix multiple varieties together.
As you can see it really is easy to maintain the health of your soil and not at all costly. If our soil is ‘alive’ it will reduce the need to ‘feed’ our plants with additional fertilizers – whether bought or homemade. I read in a book recently that the use of fertilizer makes plants become lazy – they don’t have to work as hard for their nutrients so they don’t focus as much energy on feeding the soil organisms who would naturally deliver nutrients to the plant. If the soil organisms are not fed then, like anything else, they will die.
We cannot just take from our soils without properly replenishing them. If we do it will affect our ability to grow the range of fruits and vegetables we grow and what we do grow will have a lot less nutrients present.