Soil improvement is one of the most important parts of having a flourishing and nutrient dense garden. In this post, I wrote about 5 easy ways to improve your garden soil.

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.

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.

  • Start composting yourself

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.

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.

  • 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.

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.

  • Mulch

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 later 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.

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

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.

  • Worm farm juice

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. I haven’t added them here as I have little knowledge of them, so don’t want to write about something I have yet to try. 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.

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