bay area, Edible gardening, Nutrition, Urban gardening

How to build rich soil in your home garden.

Those of us that live in the Bay Area deal with heavy, clay soil that are often treated with fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and the like. Though clay is excellent at holding minerals and water, plants struggle to establish roots. Wanting a quick fix, we end up with the cost prohibitive task of buying bags of potting mixes to fill raised beds and planting areas only to quickly realize that it doesn’t fix the problem entirely.

Bagged soil is often inconsistent in quality and expensive over time. Plants need supplemental food as the bagged soil is not alive, nor rich enough to provide all the minerals necessary for optimum growth. The supplemental food is not always good for long term plant health, and is often detrimental to the environment and soil life.

Rich soil should look nice and dark, feel crumbly, have plenty of soil life, should retain moisture, and provide adequate drainage. It should support healthy life in the soil which in turn supports a healthy plant with no need of additional plant food. A healthy plant will naturally resist pests thus reducing or even eliminating your need for pesticides and insecticides.

Now, how I got there is the point I am addressing in this blog post. Let me warn you though, in the age of instant gratification, this method is not a quick fix but rather a reliable and long standing one. Good soil takes several years to build depending on what you start off with, approximately 3 years of conscious effort in our case, as we were lucky to start with nutrient rich, undisturbed, but heavy clay soil throughout the property.

A few years back when we moved into our new home we had started planting out fruit trees. Not knowing enough about soil lifecycle and its contribution, we thought that the magic fix to nourish a fruit tree is to dig up a decent sized hole in our clay soil, back fill with bagged soil, throw in some amendments, fertilizers and plant up the tree. Little did we know that this was simply not enough, nor a wise choice to support a healthy perennial tree. We found ourselves feeding the trees twice a year with fertilizers and yet the trees did not do great as we thought it would. I then came across several content on how wood chip mulching transforms the soil web. The information made complete sense, and I decided to test it out. After the very first year of laying out a 4″ layer of good quality wood chips the beneficial organisms started to respond, and there was good fungal activity. The soil was nice and soft to dig through and the trees looked happy and produced nice fruits. Here’s a link to my experience from couple years back Fruit explosion with mulching…

The journey continued, and we have transformed one area after another of our barren, hard soil into a rich ecosystem where beneficial fungi, bacteria, earthworms and several other soil life thrive.

STEPS TO ACHIEVE GOOD SOIL HEALTH

We have slowly gotten to a point where we do not have to rely on fertilizers, yes, even the organic ones nor any pesticides / insecticides to raise healthy plants and trees. We are constantly learning and finding ways to improve our ecosystem and respect the life around us. Some steps that we took to get here are as follows.

  • We practice no-till gardening. We do not disturb or till the soil at all. Yes, that’s right, not even a few inches, and here’s why. Several microbes, bacteria, fungi, beneficial nematodes live in the soil at various layers in the soil. Tilling disrupts the intricate soil web and the life it holds.
  • We do not pull out the plant at the end of life. I simply cut the plant at its base and leave the roots in. The roots feed the life in the soil and continue to decompose adding to the nutritive value of the soil. This is even more pronounced in nitrogen fixing plants such as legumes/beans etc. I do this for healthy plants only. When plants are unhealthy or diseased, throw the entire plant in trash or burn them.
  • We add a few inches of good quality compost once a year to our garden beds. Preferably we add this in the fall, so that the compost has time to settle in during the rainy season, and life has a chance to proliferate. I sometimes buy OMRI listed compost in bulk from local vendors as I do not always make enough compost for my needs. I amend periodically with home made compost and leaf mold.
  • We cover the soil completely by adding a heavy layer of mulch . Some options we have tried are dried leaf mulches during fall, 3-4″ of wood chips or 3-4″ of untreated mulches. The mulch layer will eventually breakdown with the help of soil life over the years thus enriching the soil. This has dramatically improved the soil structure over time and has turned things around in the garden.
  • For soil that is rock hard, work in several bags of gypsum. I had to double dig certain sections of the garden one time before we started off the process of topping off with compost and mulch layers.
  • Well composted cow manures conditions the soil. I routinely add cow manures to my compost pile as and when I have access to it.

CLOSING THE WASTE GAP

  • Collect all fallen leaves during Fall. Ask around in your neighborhood if you lack diverse trees in your own property. Trees extract nutrients from deep down using their deep and extensive root systems and hold it in the leaves. Every leaf is like a multi vitamin pill.
  • Composting at home and help reduce carbon foot print for shipping the compost, plastics for bagging up the soil etc. Do the best you can. There are several methods of composting based on individual needs. Pick any and follow through.
  • Cultivate local soil microbes. They are beneficial for your own health and that of your plants. Soil is a living thing, similar to local honey. The more local it is, the better it is.
  • Encourage diversity, by growing a wide variety of plants and trees in your immediate environment. Plants such as nettles, borage, comfrey, legumes are nutrient accumulators. Use these as chop and drop mulches. Grow living mulches to protect the soil and to encourage life to thrive in the soil. Try to accomplish several layers in your food scape – ranging from tall trees to ground covers. Visualize the amazon jungle and how the rich flora and fauna thrive in the company of each other. Try to emulate a similar environment in your garden.
  • Practice poly culture and move away from mono cropping. Although rows and rows of the same crop look pretty, they are not always the best for your plants, soil and finally you the consumer. Some examples of poly culture include intercropping different types of edibles, companion planting, interplanting edible plants and flowers that attract pollinators and/or repel insects.
  • Plant pollinator friendly and natural insect repellent plants. Liberal plantings encourage birds, bees, butterflies and various other insects that help improve the ecosystem. Plants that are strong smelling such as various herbs such as dill, basil, marigolds, repel pests commonly seen in tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. Likewise there are several other combinations that operate in harmony with each other. This will result in attracting predatory insects that will keep the bad bugs away from your main plant. Such plantings often result in less use of pesticide and insecticides.
  • Earthworms are happy in such soils and they will leave their castings behind.
Polyculture – bush beans and lettuce in the front row, with eggplants in row 2 and 3 with purslane growing as ground cover. Pops of red is amaranth which self seeds each year. The last row against the trellis has pole beans alternating with bitter gourds. Peas visible is from spring planting, which I will cut when the weather heats up.

A healthy soil is a backbone to a fruitful and nutrient rich landscape. If we make deliberate efforts to consistently think of soil health, the rest else will take care of itself. Once soil health is restored you will be ready to do away with confusing fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and what not. The fruits and vegetables produced from such a soil will be superior in taste, high in nutrition and pretty much low maintenance.

I hope my journey helps inspires you to nurture the soil for it to nurture you.

Happy Gardening!

2 thoughts on “How to build rich soil in your home garden.”

  1. The Santa Clara Valley used to be famous for orchard production, and there was minimal science involved back then. The various soils are all excellent. People just need to know how to use it. Where I lived during high school, the soil was very rocky, and potentially difficult to work, even though I knew that it used to be a prune orchard previously. I removed larger rocks and used them where I wanted stone. I sometimes added compost, but otherwise did almost nothing to the soil. Furthermore, I never used insecticides or fungicides. I have no problem using such chemicals. I just never needed to. I notice that the most common problems, such as aphid on roses, and peach leaf curl on peaches, are the result of a lack of pruning. (Well pruned roses are too vigorous for aphid. Well pruned peach trees get peach leaf curl, but then grow past it. etc.) Horticulture is not taken as seriously as it once was. People think that they can purchase solutions to all their gardening problems. My ancestors did not have so many options.

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