FIRST VEGETABLE GARDEN
THE OZ VICTORY GARDEN
GARDENING TO SAVE MONEY
INCREASE YOUR BOTANY SAVVY
TILLING VS CULTIVATING
THE PERILS OF PEAT
THE DIRT ON SOIL
TINES, TINES, TINES
WHY AND HOW TO TILL
RENT OR BUY
BUYING A LAWN MOWER?
MY NEW TILLER
An informative article on the mysteries of soil
Good gardening starts with good soil. While it’s possible to garden in poor soil, or without any soil at all (as in hydroponic gardening), traditional home gardening and virtually all farming depend on good soil.
Soil, by definition, is the thin layer of material on the earth. Clearly “thin” is a relative term. Your soil may be a several feet deep, a few inches deep, or almost non-existent. But, here’s the good news – you can, and probably should, improve your soil. You can, in fact, create good gardening soil almost anywhere. It’s a very rewarding endeavor.
Soil consists of mineral and organic matter in combination with air and water. The mineral matter is generally weathered rock material; organic matter comes from decayed plant and animal matter. Water and air occupy the spaces between the solid matter. Experienced gardeners know that you can usually add any of these components, but it’s nearly impossible to subtract any of them.
Types of Soil
There are three basic types of soil: sandy, loamy, and clay. As in most cases, it’s the extremes that are to be avoided.
At one end of the spectrum is sandy soil. Sandy soil is defined as soil that has large mineral or solid particles. The geometry of these larger particles is such that water drains through the soil very rapidly, making it difficult or impossible for the soil to hold moisture and many nutrients. Sandy soils have a lot of air between the particles. The deserts and the seashore are obvious examples of sandy soils. Cacti and saw grass have adapted to these harsh conditions, but sandy soils make traditional gardening more challenging.
Clay soil is at the other end of the spectrum. Mucky red clay soil is comprised of very small solid particles, and clay soils tend to have very poor drainage and very little air between the solid particles. Wet clay soil sticks to everything, is very hard to till and cultivate, and is generally a hostile gardening environment. Dry clay soil makes great adobe blocks or bricks, but it won’t support very many traditional garden plants.
Somewhere toward the middle of the two extremes described above is loamy soil, the ideal garden medium. Loamy soil has some small solid particles, some larger solid particles, and the ideal spaces between them for holding water, air, and decaying organic matter. If your soil can support earthworms, it’s almost always good soil for gardening.
You Can Build Better Soil
If your soil is very sandy, you can create a better foundation for garden plants by adding organic matter, the best of which are dehydrated manure or compost. Compost is, by far, the best soil additive because it contains both solid mineral particles, soluble organic matter, and thousands of microorganisms that will make your soil come alive. Although a lot of books and articles recommend adding peat moss, and virtually all garden centers carry peat moss (especially in the spring), there are a few issues regarding peat moss that you should consider before adding it to your garden. (See The Perils of Peat, for a more in-depth discussion of the virtues and problems associated with this soil additive).
Adding compost to your soil on a regular basis is the best and most ecological thing you can do for your garden, which, in turn, is one of the best things you can do for your health!
If your soil is mucky clay, you can improve it by adding both sand (to create more spaces between the soil particles) and compost (to add nutrients and microorganisms).
If you are blessed with loamy soil, or “sandy loam” as some folks call it, you still need to maintain it. The best way to maintain good soil is – you guessed it – by adding compost.
Tilth is a noun which describes the physical condition of the soil with respect to its ability to support plant growth. Generally speaking, soil is described as having “good tilth” or “poor tilth.”
Good tilth means that the soil has some body to it, and that it can be easily worked with a shovel or hand tools. Good tilth comes from having the right structure and the right moisture level. The easiest way to check for tilth is to grab a handful of your soil, make a ball of soil, and see if it has enough moisture to hold it's shape, but not so much water that it won’t still crumble.
Poor tilth means that the soil is hard to work, and won’t generally support growth. Again, the two extremes are loose sand at one end of the spectrum and sticky or rock-hard clay at the other end.
Once you have achieved, or been blessed with, good soil composition, the best way to improve your soil’s tilth is to till it! In fact, some modern dictionaries describe tilth as “tilled land.”
Tilling the soil simply mixes and distributes the various components, breaking down larger particles into smaller particles, and allowing for better air and water penetration. Tilling creates a soil medium that is easier to plant and also creates an environment where organic matter is more quickly broken down to its primary elements so the plant roots can absorb them for growth. Tilling is like mixing the ingredients before baking a cake.
There are some advocates of “No Till Gardening” – to read a review of the philosophy of not tilling, see To Till or Not to Till. However most of the discussion around this subject is about no till farming, not about the average back yard gardener.
One final note, while there are scientific reasons to till, there’s also both an aesthetic and a practical reason. On the aesthetic side, a tilled garden at the beginning or end of the gardening season just looks better than an unkempt plot of land. It smells better, too. On the practical side, tilled soil is easier to plant in the spring, and quicker to recover in the fall.
If you already till the soil, you know one more thing … it’s fun! If you have not yet experienced the joy of building and maintaining good soil, you may be surprised at how rewarding, indeed – how much fun it can be.
You can build better soil, even if you’re not an agronomist or master gardener.
1. Fix the structure, if necessary
2. Add compost regularly
3. Till the soil
4. Have Fun!
If you have any comments, I’d really like to hear from you.
The Garden Of Oz
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ReviewsRead Reviews (4)
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4.3 out of 5
June 20, 2012
I have been working on doing the composting. But I have been not going anyplace with it and lost. nI need help does any one have a better Idea how to get it to work better, I have grass clippings and a few other things. I am working on the food part of it.February 25, 2012
my only thing to say, is till,then u use compost faster, till then u kill earthworms, till and u put more bad into air, till u destroy earthworm tunnels, so do u still want to really,just for fun?no matter what,gardening,is fun and healthy, tu great gardening to uFebruary 25, 2012
my only thing to say, is till,then u use compost faster, till then u kill earthworms, till and u put more bad into air, till u destroy earthworm tunnels, so do u still want to really,just for fun?no matter what,gardening,is fun and healthy, tu great gardening to uMay 04, 2009
Sandy, Loamy, and Clay Soil. Cool, I'm a first time gardener and I knew nothing about what soil to buy or use but this article helped. Thanks Oz