Before turning your soil in the garden this year, take some time to think about what it takes to create a healthy garden. When I speak of a healthy garden I mean building good soil and nourishing crops to prevent most garden problems from ever occurring. I always heard “healthy soil produces healthy plants”, and I have found this to be true. With a little forethought, your garden can have productive soil and healthy plants as well.
As Thomas Jefferson wrote, “I suspect that the insects which have harassed you have been encouraged by the feebleness of your plants; and that has been produced by the lean state of your soil.”
Productive soil is loose, friable, evenly textured, and full of soil life. Here is how you can get your soil to be that way:
Use compost, cover crops (green manure), crop residues, and animal manure to build humus. Humus improves the texture of the soil, makes nutrients available to plants, increases disease resistance and protects against drought and erosion.
Compost is excellent for building humus in the soil. Cover crops and green manure raise organic matter content of the soil when incorporating crops such as rye, hairy vetch or buckwheat. Crop residues are excellent long lasting sources of organic matter. Well aged animal manure is effective for building humus. Fresh manure should be composted so that it will not burn the plants.
Air and water are essential elements of the soil for good plant growth. Soil with a high humus content has a structure that is better for movement of water and air through the soil particles.
Soil texture can be affected by the way the ground is tilled or dug. Tillage practices should be designed to avoid compaction. I loosen my soil to a good depth and create an even texture in at least the top 8 inches. Loose soil has several important functions:
- Aeration-Roots need oxygen in order to grow.
- Drainage-Most garden plants don’t like soggy soil. The deeper the soil is dug, the better the drainage.
- Easy root movement-With compact soil, roots must slowly pry their way down. In loose soil, the roots can move freely to get the water and nutrients they need.
- Good seedbed-With fine textured soil, seeds come in close contact with the soil and assure good germination. Remember not to work the soil when it is too moist as the soil can be damaged.
Soil Life is the community of living organisms in the soil. These microorganisms and worms digest organic matter and change it into humus, a form that plants are able to use. They also transform inert minerals into healthy living soil. I have found that building the life and organic matter in my soil is an ongoing, never ending garden activity.
Healthy plants have plenty of nourishment, are vigorous and have fewer disease, growth and pest problems. Here is how you can have healthy plants:
Try to keep your plants from becoming stressed. Plants subjected to conditions of cold and windy weather, lack of water, poor nutrients, and too much heat are prime candidates for insect damage.
Cold and windy weather can be controlled by cold frames, plastic covering, floating row covers, or windbreaks. Water should be monitored (1 inch per week by rain or irrigation) so that plants are not stressed. Compost enables plants to have a rich diet. Mulch, covering the soil with a layer of organic material, reduces plant stress caused by water and weather extremes. Mulch helps moderate soil temperature, keeps the ground from drying, acts as a pest deterrent, and adds organic matter to the soil.
Buy resistant varieties of seeds. Certain plant varieties are less vulnerable to insect damage and diseases than others. Here are some examples:
|Broccoli||flea beetle||De Cicco, Atlantic|
|Cabbage||looper||Mammoth Red Rock,|
|Cantaloupe||cucumber beetle||Harper Hybrid|
|Sweet Corn||ear worm||Silver Cross|
|Cucumber||cucumber beetle||Crispy, Gemini|
|Kale||flea beetle||Vates, Dwarf|
|Pumpkin||cucumber beetle||King of the|
Mammoth, Mammoth Chili
|Radish||flea beetle||Champion, Sparkler|
|Squash||squash bug||Butternut, Summer|
Crookneck, Prolific, Straightneck
|Sw. Potato||flea beetle||Jewel|
|Watermelon||cucumber beetle||Crimson Sweet,|
Rotate your crops to improve the health of your plants. Crop rotation is the practice of moving the locations of crops within the garden each season so that the same crop does not grow in the same place twice in succession. This rotation helps soil fertility and reduces problems with soilborne diseases and some soil dwelling insects. A three year crop rotation works well. It would have a Nitrogen Fixer the first year, Heavy Feeder the second, and Light Feeder the third.
The fourth year would start with Nitrogen Fixer again. Here is an example for one bed or row:
- Year One – a Nitrogen Fixer (peas or beans) would follow a Light Feeder (potatoes or turnips).
- Year Two – a Heavy Feeder (corn or tomatoes) would follow the Nitrogen Fixer
- Year Three – a Light Feeder (carrots, or peppers) would follow the Heavy Feeder.
This year, with productive soil and healthy plants, you can have a bountiful garden.