Editor’s Note: “5 Simple Ways to Make Your Garden a Powerhouse: It’s All in the Soil!” was written by CROPP Cooperative / Organic Valley Soils Agronomist, Mark Kopecky.
Is your garden not what it used to be? The tomatoes aren’t as sweet as they once were—or they aren’t producing like they used to? Your peppers have lost their bite? Radishes, sad-ishes? Don’t worry! You can return your garden to its fertile, abundant, delicious self by following these five easy tips to inject organic growing power back into your soil.
1) Continually add fresh organic matter
Compost, manure or even cover-cropping will add lots of pleasure to your gardening. Besides the plants we usually focus on, fresh organic matter is also fuel for the other tiny creatures that live in your soil. These microbes, arthropods and earthworms all work together to keep soil healthy.
If your soil needs nutrients (see #2), then compost or well-decomposed manure work wonders! You can purchase either at your local garden center or from a local organic farmer. Use these materials as mulch around your plants and in the rows (make sure the manure is not fresh—pathogens can lurk if it’s not decomposed!). You can also work it into the soil in the off-season or when minimally-tilling before you plant.
Cover crops—like grasses or legumes—will also bring life back into your soil. These are especially useful where your soil already has the nutrients it needs, but you just want to keep the organic matter coming. You might divide your garden into thirds and plant one-third in a cover crop every year. Rotate your planting every year, switching the cover crop to a different third, and watch your garden grow!
2) Test your garden soil fertility occasionally
Think of plant nutrients as the fuel for healthy, balanced plants. If your soil is not balanced, the plants won’t be balanced either, and they won’t produce well. It’s easy to learn whether your garden’s soil may need a pinch of this or a dash of that—simply give it a test.
There are many soil testing resources across the country, both privately owned or affiliated with your state university system. Google “soil test,” and your state, or call your local agronomist or university extension office for details. Don’t be shy in asking for help reading the test; the experts can tell you what you need and how to work it into your garden’s soil.
3) Grow lots of things, and mix them up
Plant a wide variety of plants and place different species next to each other.
Diversity makes the world go ‘round. And it makes your garden healthy, too. Every different kind of plant produces its own unique microbial “signature.” These signatures are made up of intricate relationships between substances that plant roots inject into the ground and the microbial communities that they feed. Plants don’t like to live in isolation, and the closer they are to the microbial signature of a different kind of plant, the more biological activity you’ll have in your soil. Think of your garden as a community. The more diversity, the healthier each plant is likely to be.
4) Include flowers in your garden
In a vegetable garden? Yup! Flowers attract pollinators and many beneficial insects, which are as good for garden plants (and their production) as they are for flowers. Plant flowers around the edges or scatter them throughout the garden. Not only will you get better output, but you’ll also have the prettiest vegetable garden on your block!
5) Don’t over-till
Intuition tells us that a nice deep tilling of our garden’s soil is great for the garden. Actually, it’s not! Vigorous tilling rips apart essential “aggregates” of soil particles in the soil. These aggregates act as little piggy banks of nutrients, humus, and moisture. Between them are pores and channels that act as conduits for plant roots, water, gases, and the other living things in the soil. After roto-tilling breaks these aggregates apart (and reduces the pores), it takes a very long time for them to come back together enough to assist robust plant life.
Of course, some tilling is necessary in order to plant, but do as little as possible—only enough to establish your plants. Over time you will be rewarded with healthier plants and more delicious, fresh foods from your garden.
Mark Kopecky, MS, has spent his life in the dairy industry and is currently the soils agronomist for CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley. After serving in the Marine Corps, Mark attended the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in soil science and a minor in agronomy. He worked for two years as a soil scientist with the Soil Conservation Service and then attended graduate school at UW-Madison, where he completed a master’s degree in soil science. Mark worked for more than 24 years as an agriculture agent for the University of Wisconsin Extension providing education on crop and soil management to farmers throughout Wisconsin. During this time, Mark and his family also operated a small grass-based dairy farm in northern Wisconsin for more than 20 years and became members of Organic Valley’s dairy pool in 2007. In 2012, Mark accepted his current position as soils agronomist for CROPP. In this role, he helps cooperative farmer-members and others improve their crop and soil management skills.