By: Brent and Becky
Dirt or Soil?
Dirt and soil - once you get into the technicalities of gardening, suddenly they aren’t interchangeable terms. There is actually a vast difference between the two that farmers and gardeners are well aware of. When it comes down to it, the difference between dirt and soil captures many of the struggles and choices that we gardeners face regularly.
Soil is a dynamic and living thing. Your soil is bursting with billions of bacteria, protozoa, fungi, and nematodes in every handful. It’s an elaborate home to all these building blocks of life that support and nourish the plants of your garden. Both directly and indirectly, soil is a complicated cradle that not only makes your garden possible but helps it to thrive. It’s as essential to life as the air we breathe, and sometimes goes unnoticed under our feet.
Dirt, on the other hand, is largely dead. It has some of the same structure as soil and a few of the same components, but it doesn’t have the same vibrant web of life inside to support your plants. You can coax some growth out of it - mostly with the assistance of synthetic fertilizers and chemicals - but these methods leave your dirt just as lifeless in the end, preventing it from becoming healthy soil.
While large-scale agriculture is sometimes focused on the art of growing crops in dirt, our much smaller backyard ecosystems concentrate on permaculture. With a little care and knowledge, we can foster healthy soil in our own yards to start our gardens right. With a thriving underground ecosystem, we can expect healthier gardens that do a lot of their own maintenance work for us. We get beautiful, thriving life in our own backyards, without relying on the crutch of chemicals. Here’s how to get soil for healthier plants at home:
Stay Away From Chemicals
It’s natural for us to want to help, but when it comes to soil, we can often help more by doing less. Nature has figured out the best process to do things and has millennia of experience on us. Sometimes the best we can do is leave our soil to meet its needs without our meddling. But if you need to help, compost - compost - compost!
Many of us are used to the reflexive “nuke-’em-all” reaction that has dominated mainstream gardening for decades. Pesticides and herbicides were a regular part of garden maintenance as many of us grew up, and we’ve had a hard time trusting our gardens to function without chemical intervention. We’ve learned now that the fewer chemicals we put into our yard and garden, the better, especially while foodscaping.
Aggressive treatments for pests and weeds not only wipe out what you’re targeting but also have a lot of collateral damage. Traditional pesticide and herbicide treatments are harsh, and often only fix the problem short-term, letting unwanted pests and plants back into your garden unchecked while their competition, the helpful predators, are taking longer to recover. Instead, focus on creating a backyard ecosystem that self-regulates with beneficial resident predators.
Letting Nature Handle It
You simply can’t have healthy soil without lots of creepy-crawlies. It’s a reality us gardeners have to embrace. Under the surface of our gardens, we need armies of these beneficial and often microscopic creatures to transform nutrients into the stuff our plants need. It might look like simple dirt on the surface, but a healthy garden has a world of chemistry and biology teeming underneath to make life possible.
The interconnected world under your soil functions well on its own or with occasional, little boosts. Unchecked use of chemicals can easily turn your soil back into lifeless dirt as it overwhelms the natural processes happening on a miniature scale. With lifeless dirt, you can become dependant on synthetic fertilizers to grow anything, which then prevents microorganisms from turning your garden back to soil. Ideally, you’ll want to move from some of your synthetic fertilizers toward organic solutions like compost! You can never use too much, it doesn’t burn your plants. It’s safe to use with your bare hands, and around children or pets. It IS perfect! It’s what Nature uses to feed itself
But, if you absolutely MUST use chemical fertilizers, we’ll still like you, but avoid excessive fertilizer use - especially of the water-soluble, blue variety. Fertilizers with high phosphorus (middle numbers) can burn your fragile soil microorganisms, so they should be kept to your high-performance annuals safely tucked away in containers. Regardless of the type of fertilizer, never exceed the recommended dosage. You won’t do anything to help your plant, and you will end up throwing away more fertilizer, wasting money, and potentially killing your sensitive soil ecosystem.
Dig With Care
It surprises a lot of gardeners, but over-working your soil might harm your soil ecosystem! Practices like rototilling can be downright destructive: exposing your soil to too much oxygen, chopping up valuable decomposers like earthworms, all while bringing buried weed seeds to the surface. Many gardeners think that tilling decreases weeds, but it often does the opposite.
Instead of including it as a regular chore, only till, fork, and shovel when you need. Other than what’s necessary, save your back and let nature take care of itself instead.
While too much oxygen might be a problem with digging, your soil ecosystem still needs some air to function. Air pockets are vital to healthy soil. They fuel microorganisms and provide space for roots to grow. Every time you step onto your garden’s soil, you’ll crush air pockets underfoot. Avoid excessive foot traffic on your garden beds, especially after rain or watering. Consider laying down boards between the rows that you need to frequent. By standing on these, you’ll reduce compaction while also suppressing weeds!
The biggest secret to getting healthy soil in your garden comes down to setting nature up for success on its own or by adding compost. The decomposers and microorganisms all know what to do and are eager to change your backyard dirt into rich and healthy soil. Give them the opportunity to save you all the work and let nature run its course for the healthiest gardens every year!
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