The pursuit of the perfect garden or pasture soil on your homestead may never be achieved, but you can make incremental changes each year toward the goal. Improve your soil in 3 steps with these easy to implement tips.
Soil health is important for all crop success. We purchased 11 beautiful acres of land that has been used for traditional farming methods for well over 15 years (think monoculture). To bring fertility back to the land without chemicals we’ll need to develop a plan to regenerate the fertility lost to years of fertilizer and herbicide used in conventional crop farming.
The story of our property is just like other rural properties used for this type of agriculture. The farmer that previously owned it had the land on a crop rotation common here in central Texas – corn, wheat, sorghum, cotton – however, this crop rotation did not bring in the beneficial microorganisms necessary to sustain the soil without repeated chemical applications.
We are on a mission to change that! The book at the top of my reading pile is one of my favorite gardening books, The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross. I love her down to earth approach to something I love doing. I also love that she actually ripped up her lawn and planted a food garden in her front yard!
Chapter three is all about developing healthy soil, which is what I desperately need to do on our property. There are three of the suggestions I gleaned from the book.
Get a soil test
It’s difficult to know what amendments you need to make with your soil since it cannot give you visual clues about the nutrients it is lacking. A soil test will inform you about the nutrient content and pH level of your soil and give you recommendations for amendments. If you request it, you can also test for contaminants in the soil.
Contact your local county extension office for testing labs and directions on how to submit soil samples. You can find your local extension office my searching – [your county] [your state] extension office – where you will be able to find the Local Land Grant University in your area.
Understand your soil structure
The soil in the area I live is called Blackland Prairie. Blackland soils are known as “cracking clays” because of the large, deep cracks that form in dry weather. I’ve heard that if you put a weight on a string and lower it down one of the cracks, it will reach 10 feet or more into the soil. Water erosion, soil tilth, and brush control are the major management problems with this type of soil.
Before you can begin making amendments to the soil you need to know about it. The US Department of Agriculture has taken extensive surveys of soil, over a period of several decades, and in every state. Use the Soil Surveys by State Link to find out what kind of soil you have.
If you would like a visual representation of the breakdown of your soil’s clay, soils, and sand structure, take this fun soil test found at PreparednessMama.
Don’t be discouraged if you have clay soil that holds too much water or sandy soil that lets it all run away too quickly, as Amy puts it in her article on organic soil amendments:
“The truth is the majority of gardeners have challenging soils that require improvement for cultivation. We are all special by not being unique! Ideal garden soil will bring these two spectrums into balance. Loamy soil balances clay, sand, and organic matter. Organic soil amendments can help us do this.”
Add soil amendments over time
Your goal with soil amending is to provide a better environment for the roots of your plants. These amendments can be material added to a soil to improve its physical or nutrient properties. You can add things to improve:
- water retention
- water infiltration
- and to increase or decrease nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and micronutrients for plant health
An amendment must be thoroughly mixed into the soil to do its work. If it is merely buried, or laid on top of the soil, effectiveness is reduced, and it will not have the needed effect.
Guide to Organic Amendments from The Suburban Micro-farm
Many soil amendments are free and fairly inexpensive, biodegradable and easy to find locally. Amy says that, in general, soil amendments are best added before the garden is planted in the fall or spring. If you live in an area with a lot of rainfall nutrients are more easily washed away, and many will need a second application.
Sometimes I feel like deciding on the best soil amendment is a guessing game. There are so many things to choose. I appreciate the way Amy breaks down the amendments section in her book by type – animal based, mineral based, and plant-based.
Animal-based soil amendments discussed in the book include Bat guano, blood meal, bone meal, eggshells, fish fertilizer, manure, oyster shells, worm composting, and fish emulsion. These can be a potent source of nutrients, and she discussed each one in detail.
Mineral-based soil amendments are most often used to correct mineral deficiencies. You will learn how and when to use Epsom salts, greensand, lime, rock dust, and sulfur.
Plant-based coil amendments are often used to improve soil structure, balance soil pH and improve nutrients. These include alfalfa meal, coffee grounds, comfrey, homemade compost, growing cover crops, cottonseed meal, herbs, leaf mold, mushroom compost, peat moss, seaweed fertilizer, seaweed meal, soybean meal, wood ash and wood chips. Comprehensive!
“Fertility isn’t solely about nutrients; it’s also about beneficial organisms that make the nutrients bioavailable to plant roots.” Amy Stross, The Suburban Micro-farm
When you apply the three principles to improve your soil by getting a soil test, learning about the specific soil structure in your yard, and making necessary amendments over time, you’ll find many benefits. Your soil will become rich with microorganisms and worms. It will hold the moisture and nutrients that plants need to thrive.
The pursuit of the perfect garden or pasture soil on your homestead may never be achieved, but you can make incremental changes each year toward the goal. Even yearly small additions of compost, leaf litter, and growing cover crops will add up to big returns in the future.
Remember, you’re in it for the long haul. The Suburban Micro-Farm will give you the information you need to succeed.
About the author: At age 33, Amy Stross left her career as a high school teacher. Disillusioned and worried about her future, she turned to dirt therapy. After years of working as a professional gardener and transforming her 1/10-acre suburban homestead into a productive edible landscape, she discovered she had found hope and a soul-filling life as a micro-farmer. Many of the stories and lessons she shares began in her front yard.
For five years she led the development of a community food forest at her local university, learning many lessons along the way.
Amy lives in the suburbs of Cincinnati, Ohio with her husband and farm cat. Their current adventures include transforming their 3.3-acre suburban property into an edible and biodiverse micro-farm.
Specializing in permaculture gardening, blogger, garden writer, and educator Amy Stross has reached hundreds of thousands of people with her adventures and expertise at TenthAcreFarm.com.