I talk a lot about how to improve garden health because it’s obviously a vital step for growing nutrient-dense organic food.
That’s why the first 6 months of The Academy – my members-only online organic gardening course – are largely about how to optimize the health of your soil and plants.
The reason the following steps are so important is because we’re trying to grow plants that probably wouldn’t be growing in our gardens on their own, plants that often need quite a lot of nutrition, as is the case for a majority of our most common vegetables.
And also because we really want them to produce big yields, and to be healthy and nutritious.
In nature, a plant will grow from the ground and if it’s not healthy, it will be eaten by insects or disease – no big deal.
But in our organic vegetable gardens, we don’t want that to happen, so we’re willing to put a little effort into moving our soil towards more of an ideal situation.
Today I thought it would be cool to give you an overview of the whole process of boosting garden health rather than focusing in detail on just one aspect of it.
If you’ve ever been faced with a challenge in your life, whether it’s an emotional challenge like I’ve been going through this past couple of months, or a physical challenge like getting over an injury, or whatever, you know it’s important to take a multi-faceted approach to facing that challenge.
That would include exercise, proper sleep, nutrition, mindfulness, etc. Needed a picture of something 🙂
And it’s the same in the garden – there are a few steps we need to take in order to get the results we’re looking for.
I know most people won’t do all of the following steps, but that’s okay – let’s just say the more you do, the better.
Here’s an email I received from Academy member Jo:
“We have now done the foliar spray twice on the winter crops and the results are pretty spectacular on the whole. I had to go back and do a third hit on the curly kale, which was not doing much, but it is now jumping. My collards out in the garden came in spectacularly with little worm damage. We built a 5 by 4.5 compost heap that heated up to 160 right away and stayed there for several days. My excitement level is high.”
She’s hit on 2 of the steps right there: 1) foliar spraying of plants, and 2) making and using good compost.
But we’ll actually start back a bit further with today’s gardening advice…
1. Soil testing.
It starts with a soil test.
Not a soil test from your local agriculture soil lab, because they’re on a different wavelength than us, coming from a chemical fertilizer mindset.
And not the cheap home soil test kits that may seem like a bargain – they’re very unreliable, so I never use them myself.
You need to find a good organic lab and then mail a soil sample to them.
I use Crop Services International and International Ag Labs, or you can search for one in your state – or you may have to look in a nearby state.
If you’re in Canada I often suggest A&L Labs because I know how to interpret their conventional results – I wouldn’t rely on their fertilizing recommendations or those from most other regular labs, but I would for the more organically-minded labs above.
I know the soil test is a step that many people will skip, because it often costs $30-$60 or more including shipping, but it’s definitely something to do when you’re ready to grow more nutrient-dense food.
By the way, if you want to learn how to interpret your soil test results, plus learn a whole lot more about soil in general, there’s a good book called The Ideal Soil.
2. Soil fertilizing.
Then comes adding fertilizer to your soil.
How do you know what your soil needs if you haven’t done a soil test? Well, you don’t.
That’s why we can’t do much to balance our soil fertility if we haven’t done a soil test.
We can use 10 pounds of calcium carbonate per 1000 square feet, which is just a small amount, because 90% of soils are deficient in calcium and it’s just so important. But that’s the only mineral I recommend without a soil test.
There are, however, a number of organic fertilizers that provide just tiny amounts of many different minerals.
These you can use without a soil test because it’s not going to add too much of any one mineral. It’s not going to help with your imbalanced soil fertility, but it will at least give some nutrition.
My main suggestion here is rock dust, especially of glacial, basalt or volcanic origin.
Alfalfa meal is also decent – as long as it’s organic because non-organic alfalfa is now being genetically modified.
In fact, a lot of fertilizers that used to be used in organic gardening – such as cottonseed meal, soybean meal and corn gluten meal – are now largely from genetically modified plants. I tend to take the precautionary principle and stay away from all GMOs, but that’s just me.
(I cover fertilizing in months 2 and 5 of the Academy.)
3. Organic Matter
Compost is one of the most common methods of increasing soil organic matter and supplying nutrients.
You don’t want to use smelly, rotten compost, but the good stuff can be very helpful.
And you also don’t want to use too much of it because you can actually cause fertility imbalances, but up to about 1/3 cubic yard per 1000 square feet each year is useful, rarely more.
Many organic gardeners use too much compost, resulting in huge calcium deficiencies and ultimately, more pests and poor quality food. But compost is great as long as we keep it in balance.
There are other methods of building organic matter, too. Using cover crops is one of my favorites, as is using mulch, especially leaves. Basically, I like to keep my soil covered most of the time, either by mulch or living plants.
Biochar and humates are two additional sources of organic matter that I haven’t gotten into very much. They have some uses, but need to be used carefully, like anything else I guess.
(I cover organic matter and composting in months 1 and 4 of the Academy.)
4. Plant foliar fertilizing.
While improving soil fertility is an important long term goal, we can also help our plants in the short term by feeding them directly with specific plant foods that we call liquid foliar fertilizers.
And when we spray them, we can actually hit both the plants and soil, so we’re doing double duty.
They all bring different benefits, but what’s similar is that they’re all supplying 70+ minerals directly to plants for foliar uptake, and to the soil as well. I spray them at least monthly.
In addition to these broad spectrum liquid fertilizers, there are specific trace minerals we can use, but again, this gets back to having a soil test to go by.
Products like zinc sulfate and even household borax can be incredibly useful, but only if you need, in this case, zinc and boron. We only need these minerals in parts per million, so don’t want to go spraying much of them unless we know we’re deficient.
(I cover plant fertilizing mainly in month 5 of the Academy.)
So far we’ve been talking about minerals, or chemistry, but an important part of fertilizing is also ensuring we have appropriate biology in the soil and on plants.
That means beneficial microorganisms, insects and other animals.
This isn’t technically called fertilizing, but since it’s these organisms that help make our fertilizers available to plants, it really is an important part of the fertilizing process.
The compost up above will go a long way to supplying these beneficial organisms, if it’s good compost, but I also use a few probiotic products just to make sure my biology is as abundant and diverse as possible.
I don’t bring in beneficial insects, but I do my best to attract them by planting a diverse array of insect-attracting plants, especially herbs.
And I supply adequate water to the garden – not just to the plants, but to the whole garden soil – because I want to make sure those insects and those microorganisms have the water they need.
(I cover biology in months 3 and 6 of the Academy.)
This post is getting way too long, so I’m going to just stick point number 6 up on facebook.
Some organic farming experts consider this step to be the most important of all.
Personally, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what can be done with this, but it’s something I plan to pursue more and more.
Check it out on facebook – and it would be great if you would ‘Like’ me up there, too, if you’re into that kind of thing 🙂
Why We Need To Take This Holistic Approach
We can’t apply only soil fertilizers and be done with it…
…because we need the biology in the soil in order to make those fertilizers available to plants, and that biology needs some organic matter to work with, too.
We can’t apply only compost and be done with it…
…because compost doesn’t supply all of the nutrients we need, and definitely not in the right proportions for our soil.
We can’t apply only foliar fertilizers and be done with it…
…because they need at least a certain threshold of soil fertility balance in order to work effectively, and they’re very much helped by having proper biology around as well.
We can’t apply only biology and be done with it…
…because even though they do a lot for garden health, they need nutrients and organic matter to work with.
So that’s why we need to take a multi-faceted approach.
- A soil test tells you which nutrients you need.
- Soil fertilizers are used to balance soil fertility so plants/microbes/insects have what they need.
- Organic matter has at least a dozen important functions, from holding nutrients and water to providing homes for soil life.
- Liquid fertilizers are used to feed plants directly, as well as soil.
- Biology takes all of those inputs and makes them available to plants.
(For more detail on all of the fertilizers and inoculants mentioned today, go here.)
Phew! Lots covered today in this post. Feel free to ask me questions down below about improving garden health.