This post was updated in April 2023. It was first written in 2021. This blog post does contain affiliate links. I earn from qualifying purchases.
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Improving your garden soil – what is the point?
Gardening is a great way to connect with nature and grow your own food. However, the quality of your garden soil can greatly impact the success of your garden.
I just spent last week tilling the garden plot and turning the soil. I decided mid-winter, that I needed to change my garden. Not the best time, and definitely not part of the plan. But when Moose came back from his trainer, he trampled a lot of the pumpkin patch, and I noticed some aphid’s coming into the tomatoes.
I planted last year with little planning. Honestly, it was a bit of a, ‘let’s throw something in to see what fits’. After being in Canberra for 14 months and coming home, my garden was an overgrown grass pile with nothing to it, and it needed some fixing.
But I must say it wasn’t as bad as I thought. As I was working through it and tilling, I was pulling up lots of big fat worms and skinny worms so the soil is rich. I think its silty soil, as it can be dense but also fine.
After tilling, I added some manky hay, horse manure and ash to it and have been wetting it down in preparation for my seeds. But that’s not all of it. This was just one of the easier and quicker ways to get some extra oomph into the soil without needing to buy a lot of extra top soil.
Soil improvements benefit the garden
Improving your soil will always be a benefit to the garden and the vegetables you produce. The quality of the growth and yield is directly impacted by the nutrients you get from what is sown and grown. So, it’s no wonder that soil management is an important factor in managing a garden.
I’ve done little cover cropping, but am planning to do it in the next iteration. I’ve also been doing a year long biochar experiment, which I will write about soon. I think biochar is fantastic for the garden, and I can’t wait to expand it to a bigger plot eventually.
And so, because I’ve had gardening on the brain for the last few days, I figured it would be timely to write about simple ways to improve your garden soil, and how you can plan for soil management.
- Add compost: Compost is a great way to add nutrients and organic matter to your soil. You can make your own compost by collecting kitchen scraps and yard waste, or you can purchase it from a local nursery.
- Use cover crops: Cover crops, such as clover or rye, can help improve soil structure and add nutrients. They also help prevent erosion and suppress weeds.
- Mulch: Mulching your garden beds with leaves, straw, or grass clippings can help retain moisture and prevent soil erosion. As the mulch breaks down, it also adds organic matter to the soil.
- Rotate crops: Planting different crops each year can help prevent soil-borne diseases and pests from building up in your soil. It also helps ensure that your soil is getting a variety of nutrients.
- Manure: Animal manure is a natural fertilizer that can add nutrients to the soil. You can get free manure from local farms or stables.
- Coffee grounds: Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen and can be added to the soil to improve fertility. You can get free coffee grounds from your local coffee shop.
- Eggshells: Eggshells are rich in calcium and can be crushed and added to the soil to improve soil structure.
- Wood ash: Wood ash is rich in potassium and can be added to the soil to improve fertility. You can get free wood ash from your fireplace or wood stove.
- Worms: Worms are natural soil aerators and can help to improve soil structure. You can start a worm bin or purchase worms to add to your garden soil.
- Rainwater: Rainwater is free and contains natural minerals that can improve soil fertility. You can collect rainwater in a rain barrel and use it to water your garden.
Start composting yourself
Compost helps to improve soil structure, which can benefit plant growth by allowing for better water and air circulation. Adding compost to soil can also help to suppress plant diseases and pests, as well as reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.
We have a lot of kitchen and yard waste that is useful for composting. Anything from leaves, grass clippings and vegetable skins and peels, to egg shells, cardboard and ash. It doesn’t take a lot of effort to manage or start your own composting, but it will take time.
Your own compost, especially if you use your own organically grown vegetables, will become the best type of nutrient for your soil. It creates a fantastic element of organic matter and helps with water retention.
When adding compost to your soil, it’s important to mix it in well so that it’s evenly distributed throughout the soil. It’s also a good idea to test your soil’s pH level before adding compost, as certain plants thrive in different pH ranges.
If you’re making your own compost, be sure to avoid adding any meat, dairy, or oily foods, as they can attract unwanted pests and slow down the composting process. When purchasing compost from a local nursery, be sure to ask about the ingredients and any potential contaminants that may be present.
Whilst you can buy compost form the store, its free to make your own and, you are entirely in control of what goes into it and how much goes into it.
If you haven’t got a designated composting space or you aren’t necessarily that ready, you can still use kitchen scraps such as ground up egg shells or coffee grounds in the garden. This alone will help the soil health and plants without needing much input from you as you get your composting research and space ready.
I have the pleasure of collaborating with an Australian company that have designed and created a smart composter called the Monty Monitor. To get 5% off your purchase, use code LIFEONMILOSFARM at checkout or use this link:
Adding a cover crop
Cover crops help prevent soil erosion by holding the soil in place with their roots. They can also suppress weeds, reducing the need for herbicides and manual weeding.
Cover crops can improve soil health by increasing organic matter, which in turn improves soil structure and water-holding capacity. They also promote beneficial soil microbes that help break down organic matter and make nutrients more available to plants.
In addition to clover, rye, and buckwheat, other cover crop options include oats, radish, and vetch.
Cover crops can be used in a variety of cropping systems, such as no-till and reduced-till systems, and can be tailored to specific goals such as nitrogen fixation or weed control.
They can also provide habitat for beneficial insects and pollinators, further supporting ecological diversity on the farm.
There are several benefits to implementing crop rotation in your agricultural practices.
Crop rotation can increase crop yields by providing the soil with the necessary nutrients to support healthy plant growth. It can also reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, which can be costly and harmful to the environment.
Rotating crops can also help to break up soil compaction, which allows for better water infiltration and root development. In addition, certain crops can be used as cover crops during the off-season to protect the soil from erosion and improve soil structure.
Overall, crop rotation is a sustainable and effective method for maintaining healthy soil and maximizing crop production.
Manure is gardening gold
If you already have farm animals, horses, chooks or cows, then you already have some of this gardening gold. The addition of animal manure to a garden provides nutrients, builds organic matter and adds microbial action to your soil. Remember those worms? Well, they love this stuff.
There are different types of animal manure that you can use as fertilizer for your plants.
- Cow manure: This type of manure is high in nitrogen and can help improve the soil’s fertility. It’s best to use aged cow manure, as fresh manure can burn your plants.
- Chicken manure: Chicken manure is also high in nitrogen and can be a great fertilizer for your garden. However, it’s important to compost it first, as fresh chicken manure can contain harmful bacteria.
- Horse manure: Horse manure is rich in nutrients and can help improve soil structure. It’s best to use aged horse manure, as fresh manure can contain weed seeds.
Fresh manure can be quite strong and hot to use in a garden, so there are a few things to keep in mind. If you want to use fresh manure, you should use it more in a raised garden setting, where you may need extra material to backfill until you get to your growing medium. This is a good way to fill a raised garden bed, but also provide warmth and organic matter that can still be pulled from later.
If you want to use it a bit quicker, then its best to try and have a pile somewhere that can sit for some time. I have a small pile of horse poo still sitting from autumn and won’t be used until maybe spring or summer. As horse poo takes 4 months’ minimum to stat composting where it is, you may as well leave it way out somewhere to go through the process naturally, where the dung beetles and birds will have some fun with it.
Keep in mind – using manure should be only when your animals are not exposed to paddocks/feed etc, where there has been no pesticides or herbicides sprayed. Also, animals wormed with ivermectin can flush this out in their poo, which you also don’t want in your garden.
In my recent garden clean up, I used fresh manure, mixed with ash and old hay and mixed it in well with the soil that was there. I will also apply a top layer over this to ensure the new seedlings don’t necessarily touch the manure bits until some growing has occurred, which gives me that buffer to use it straight away.
If you’re looking to improve your soil’s fertility, coffee grounds can be a great addition to your gardening routine. Not only are they rich in nitrogen, but they can also help improve soil structure and water retention.
We use a coffee pod machine in our home (don’t fret, I will be changing over to a fully automatic bean grinder soon!). In order to make sure I can send the pods for recycling, I need to empty the used coffee grounds anyway. Because I am already preparing the pods, it just makes sense to repurpose the grounds too.
Here are a few tips for using coffee grounds in your garden:
- Start by collecting coffee grounds from your local coffee shop. Many shops will give them away for free, so be sure to ask!
- Mix the coffee grounds into your soil, either by digging them into the top few inches of soil or by adding them to your compost pile.
- Be careful not to overdo it with the coffee grounds, as too much nitrogen can actually harm your plants. Aim for a ratio of about 1 part coffee grounds to 3 parts soil or compost.
- Coffee grounds can also be used as a mulch around plants, which can help suppress weeds and retain moisture in the soil.
With a little bit of effort, you can turn your coffee addiction into a gardening advantage!
Adding crushed eggshells to your soil not only improves its structure, but it also provides a valuable source of calcium for your plants. As a homesteader, you should already have an array of wonderful heritage breeds in your flocks producing some great eggs!
Other than also adding it to your dog’s raw feed (if you do raw feed), the next best thing for them is in the garden. They add potassium and calcium back into the soil.
- Eggshells can help deter pests such as slugs and snails, as the sharp edges can be uncomfortable for them to crawl over.
- The calcium in eggshells can also help prevent blossom end rot in tomatoes and other fruits and vegetables.
- If you’re starting seedlings indoors, you can use eggshells as biodegradable seedling pots. Simply poke a hole in the bottom for drainage and fill with soil and seeds.
It’s important to note that while eggshells are a great addition to your garden, they shouldn’t be used as the sole source of calcium. It’s always best to have your soil tested and adjust nutrient levels accordingly.
If you’ve recently had a bonfire, or like to warm yourself in front of a roaring fireplace or wood burner, then you’ll probably have lots of ash. Getting rid of it can be a bit of a nuisance, but it’s also a valuable source of nutrients, which makes it a great resource for the garden.
Adding wood ash to your soil can provide various benefits to your plants. Potassium is an essential nutrient for plants which encourages flowering and fruiting. It also contains other vital minerals and micronutrients like maganese, zinc, iron and calcium. By adding wood ash to your soil, you can improve the overall fertility and health of your plants.
Different wood types also offer different concentrations of nutrients. Using hardwoods and younger woods will produce higher concentrations of minerals in your ash compared to softer woods. Thankfully in Australia we have some wonderful and often old hardwood available.
Wood ash can also help to neutralize acidic soil. If your soil is too acidic, adding wood ash can help to balance the pH levels and make it more conducive to plant growth. Worms also love the conditions of compost when there is less acidity. However, it’s important to note that wood ash should be used in moderation. Too much wood ash can lead to an imbalance of nutrients in the soil, which can be harmful to plants.
When applying wood ash to your soil, it’s best to do so in the autumn or winter, before planting season. This will give the ash time to break down and become fully incorporated into the soil.
One final thing to remember is to use wood ash from untreated wood. Wood that has been treated with chemicals or preservatives can be harmful to plants and should not be used in the garden.
Worms are some of the most wonderful garden crusaders and garbage gobblers who just happen to be awesome (and fairly low maintenance) pets! Despite the fact that worms munch away on our waste, they are actually pretty clean, and their digestive system is so amazing it can destroy pathogens!
I don’t yet have a worm farm but many of my friends do and its fantastic for the garden. I do hope to set up a worm garden and have an idea for one using an IBC.
Putting worms to work in your garden is a fantastic natural way to improve your garden soil. They help speed up decomposition, leave wormy poops in there and aerate the soil, leaving their wormy poops in troublesome areas. Why would you go to excessive effort to try and do all this when worms do this naturally?
There are other ways you can help your garden soil, which includes having raised garden beds, using hügelkultur, testing soil and manually adding the nutrients needed and using cover crops.
Some of the best ways to manage soil is to do things the way our elders did. The most important thing to remember is to be mindful of what you add to your methods. Whether its biochar, worm farm, or composting, you want to make sure you add the best, organic and most bountiful scraps back into the earth. Adding chemicals will destroy the soil and destroy all the potential yield from your garden beds.
Australian studies have shown that every one of us throws away about 180kg of compostable food and green waste every year. Whilst that may not sound significant, when this sort of waste goes into landfill and breaks down anaerobically (without oxygen) a massive amount of methane is produced.
Methane is a gas 21 times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. So, our 180kg of tossed food and green waste ends up creating over 800kgs of carbon emissions per year, which is not so good. Don’t be quick to blame farting cows when we are very much part of the problem.
Starting a worm farm is a simple and easy way to make a huge impact on reducing our carbon footprint and also do something good for the compost!
Worms need a dark and moist environment to thrive, so choose a bin that is well-ventilated but also allows for some darkness. You’ll also need to add bedding material like shredded newspaper or cardboard to the worm farm, along with food scraps for the worms to eat. Avoid adding meat, dairy, or oily foods to the bin as they can attract unwanted pests.
It’s vital to keep the bin at the right temperature – worms like it between 12 and 25 degrees c. Once your worm bin is established, you can use the nutrient-rich worm castings as a natural fertilizer for your garden soil.
Having farm animals, particularly horses, means you have probably had a bale or two go off from rain or mould. These old bales are perfect for the garden! I hope you haven’t been throwing them.
Mulching can be done in a couple of ways. Commonly, its used as a top cover to the soil to keep weeds at bay and give some warmth and cover to the garden bed. But you can also deep mulch, which is where you build a deep layer of mulch in the garden and part the mulch in areas where you want to plant.
By doing this, your super thick layer of mulch will start decomposing slowly and from the bottom, ensuring a nice and constant layer of nutrient and organic matter where the soil meets the mulch.
Mulch can help regulate soil temperature by keeping it cool during hot summer months and warm during colder seasons. Organic mulches like leaves, grass clippings, and straw can break down over time and add valuable nutrients to the soil, improving its overall health.
In addition to preventing weed growth, mulch can also help reduce soil erosion and compaction.
It’s important to choose the right type of mulch for your specific plants and soil conditions. For example, wood chips may not be the best choice for plants that prefer acidic soil.
When applying mulch, be sure to spread it evenly and avoid creating thick layers that can suffocate plant roots. Aim for a depth of about 7-10 cm for most types of mulch.
Deep mulching is excellent for retaining water. When it rains, the mulch keeps the soil moist for longer. The only thing to be mindful of is making sure that any space made for growing plants is managed well, so that the moisture that is likely to stick around for longer doesn’t burn or rot the seedling.
Biochar is another thing that can be commercially sold, but I would recommend you making your own. It’s incredibly easy, and amazing for the garden. I started a biochar experiment last year and hope to write about it more soon.
Basically, it’s a carbon rich form of charcoal you apply to the soil. It’s very popular in sustainable farming and permaculture circles and has its roots in Amazonian tribes and farming. Much like composting, biochar does have a bit of a process to it, but the benefit to your garden is fantastic.
Making biochar is pretty easy, but does take some time. First, you need to burn down wood to get charcoal without getting to ash stage. We did a 4 hour burn for our char. Next, you stop the burn by watering it down and then leaving the water in there for 24 hours.
After 24 hours has passed, you drain the water and start adding other material to it. This can be anything from animal urine and manure, to kitchen scraps. Make sure it’s all organic and clean produce.
You add water again just to cover it, and leave it for two months. During this time, at least in the first week, you can still add organic matter to it. The purpose of this is to activate the charcoal with nutrients. Keep stirring and turning it during this two months, every couple of days is fine.
When it comes time to use it, don’t just drain the water and go. Use the water to water the garden in any number of ways. I’ve used it when repotting and planting, to add that water to the base, and I’ve also just plainly watered the garden with it. Separate the water from the hard material and keep it to use.
When you’re ready to use the biochar, make sure you have a good ratio of organic soil to mix it with. Because the char is porous, and now activated with nutrients, it is able to hold water much better and for longer. Once you add biochar to your garden, you also don’t have to keep adding it. Studies show that once biochar has been added once, it provides benefit to gardens for tens of years.
I currently have an experiment tomato plant in an exclusively biochar/soil tub, and it has continued to flower and produce fruit with very little watering or impact from me, which is purposeful. I wanted to see how true the claims were about moisture retention, and so far, it has come through. In the case of this tomato experiment whether it applies to other vegetables is something I don’t know yet, but hope to explore.
improving your garden soil quality does not have to be expensive or time-consuming. By following these 10 free and easy tips, you can create healthy and nutrient-rich soil for your garden. With healthy soil, you will have a better chance of growing healthy plants and vegetables.