Homespun Garden Fertility: What Lasts

Good soil is the basis of the garden, and most of us seem to start with some kind of imbalance in our garden’s soil – maybe the plot is too sandy, maybe it contains too much clay or it’s just poor in nutrient values. It seems like we all have to start somewhere imperfect, relative to our specific location, and build up from there. In my area, a heavy clay belt, I have struggled to create a better soil texture, with more organic matter and better friability. When I first dug out the sod on my soon-to-be garden plot, I sometimes scooped out huge chunks of pure solid clay – I could sculpt vases with the stuff on a pottery wheel. Combined with this challenge, I have a small rocky mountain just beside my yard & garden which funnels a lot of rainwater runoff my way. This is probably great for mineral additions, but it can make things a bit swampy in spring or when there are heavy rains.

One of the first steps I took to alter the soil situation was, of course, to bring in some new soil for the area. That new soil helped to balance the clay ratio, but that new soil wasn’t especially fertile (and it was loaded with horsetail weeds!!). I started the journey of creating great soil using thick straw mulch, and tilling it under every year. Adding several bales of straw every year made a big difference, and with each subsequent year the soil got darker and more rich, and less sticky. I also began to plant a fair bit of legumes, and this had a significant effect; so much so, that I could bank each year on putting some plants, sometimes flowers, where the beans or peas were the year before and sit back and wait for the show to begin. My four o’clocks grew so large on the former bean bed one year that they ceased to be annual flowers and turned into enormous fragrant hedges. (This was almost a disaster, because I don’t grow hedges in my vegetable garden!) Needless to say, peas and beans are delicious eating but they also can work wonders in amending soil composition and texture. Especially if you allow the copious leaf matter to fall to the ground in autumn, the nutrient levels can really elevate in those areas when it’s all tilled under. When I started to grow large amounts of beans and peas I noticed that every year the soil was more wonderful by every metric.

From grey coloured, totally impoverished soil to a much darker shade after years of natural additions. When very dry the color can still look a bit ashen, reflecting it’s clay rich beginnings, but the texture is very good and the soil turns blackish-brown again with moisture. Some wood charcoal chunks up front in the process of degrading, another amendment that is included.

There have also been some amendments I’ve used which have added to my gardens’ mineral content and other nutrient profiles. When you use great quality amendments, it only builds your gardens’ fertility and richness, and it remains in some capacity with each application. Kelp meal, alfalfa meal, azomite, shrimp compost, granulated chicken manure, worm castings, worm casting tea, fish meal, fish emulsion, dried egg shells and water from cooking vegetables are all wonderful additions. I don’t apply much, and whatever I apply in ground is at planting time and that’s it. With pots I may re-apply twice, and cycle the soil back and forth – into the growing pot, back to the garden in fall, rinse & repeat for the following year. I only use garden soil (not potting mix) in my potted tomato plants, despite that ‘not being recommended’ and it works extremely well for me becaue I’ve got good soil fertility.

Another addition I’ve recently included is the use of a mulcher/shredder. I save up all my dried plants from the season – tomato plants, legume vines, corn stalks, pepper plants, bean and pea shells after seed harvesting – and I put every dried ounce of it through the shredder/mulcher. I use this as a ‘fertility mulch’ and this layer of organic material can really make the area explode the next year with growth. My rhubarb row grew to truly enormous proportions the first year I spread this dried plant mulch across the crowns in fall, it was incredible. The rhubarb was already quite well established so the plants became almost unmanageable; I was inexperienced with this kind of mulch and it was a learning experience. Now I make a point to use that special mulch in areas of the garden that I feel need a boost, and I consider it precious as gold, applying it carefully. It looks like fluffy wood chips, but it breaks down quickly and the worm activity it generates is vigorous. The nutrition in the mulch converts quickly into soil matter.

There are so many ways to approach increasingly the health and fertility of your soil, and experimenting with what works in your specific area is ultimately what counts. The proof is in the pudding!

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