Updated: June 1, 2020
This is a guest article on soil building by Phil Nauta from Smiling Gardener.
There are dozens of soil building techniques you can use to start an organic garden. I’ve tried most of them, and in my view, these three are the most important to take care of first:
1. Use quality compost
Using quality compost is the number one priority for most gardeners. Not only does it add a broad range of nutrients, but it also supplies (1) organic matter and (2) beneficial organisms. Generally speaking, both of these are low in most soils.
Organic matter helps soil in a number of ways. It:
- Holds onto nutrients and water
- Gives food and habitat to many helpful organisms
- Increases air in the soil and decreases compaction
The beneficial organisms – microorganisms, insects and other tiny animals – drastically improve the soil and directly feed and protect plants. They’re often the missing ingredient in achieving a healthy garden.
By quality compost, I mean compost that looks like nice/dark/moist/crumbly soil, smells good and was made with a diversity of non-toxic materials.
When I’m starting a new garden, I bring in as much as six inches of compost. Then, I usually till or dig it in.
Leaves are nature’s fertilizer.— Phil Nauta, Smiling Gardener
I don’t till much after that, but it’s helpful that first time to get it down into the root zone.
Here’s where you can learn more about how to use compost on my site, and here’s Bill’s post on how to compost faster. In future years, I don’t bring in as much compost because my soil is covered by mulch, which is the next topic.
Let’s take a sec to get the legal words out of the way. This article may contain affiliate links. That means if you click and buy from my partners, I will make a tiny amount of money at no cost to you. This in no way affects my recommendations.
2. Use a proper mulch
As you probably know, mulch goes on top of the soil. It provides many of the same benefits as compost. It holds water, protects the soil, decreases evaporation and provides food and habitat for organisms.
It even provides fertility if you use the right kind. But the most common mulches are either not very helpful or even detrimental. Here are some mulch examples:
Stones / rocks protect the soil and keep it moist, but don’t break down into organic matter. In fact, they actually stop any other organic matter from being incorporated into the soil.
Bark and wood
Bark mulch and wood chips do many things right, but both can contribute to nitrogen deficiency in the soil. I’ve seen this many times.
Another issues is that bark from conifers can give off toxic liquids and gas because it was improperly stored. This is not something you want to put on top of your soil.
Plus, wood can attract termites. Again, this is probably not something you want near your wooden house.
Related: Grasscycling and Composting Grass Clippings.
Wood mulches can work in some situations, but aren’t my favorite choice, especially for a vegetable garden.
Straw and leaves
My favorite mulches are straw and leaves. Straw does nearly everything right, although it doesn’t look that great and has to be brought in every year. Still, it’s my mulch of choice in a new garden until I can accumulate enough of the absolute best mulch: leaves.
Leaves contain many nutrients, look natural, and with intelligent garden design, will appear for you every autumn from your deciduous trees and plants. Leaves are nature’s fertilizer, and then you can supplement nutrients if you like, which is the next topic.
3. Use the right fertilizer
There are thousands of organic fertilizers made specifically for organic gardening. Choosing the right one for you can get overwhelming.
Fortunately, you don’t need all of them. In fact, before using any of them, you probably need compost and a good mulch. They’re the best all-round fertilizers available.
Then you can supplement with a natural, broad-spectrum fertilizer such as sea minerals or kelp. What I like about them is that they have just a little bit of everything, rather than only nitrogen – phosphorus – potassium (N-P-K).
Then there are more specific mineral fertilizers like dolomite lime and gypsum. I know they’re often recommended in organic gardening, but the truth is that they shouldn’t be used unless you’ve had a soil test done that indicates you actually need the minerals they contain.
I don’t mean a home soil test kit – I’m referring to sending your sample to a quality lab that gives organic recommendations.
Otherwise, it’s very likely that you’re supplying the wrong nutrients. For example, dolomite lime supplies a lot of calcium and magnesium. The calcium is often a good thing, but most people already have too much magnesium. Adding more just causes compaction and pest problems.
So unless you’re getting into soil testing, it’s best to stick with the fertilizers that provide many different minerals in just tiny amounts. Quality compost and leaf mulch supply a lot of this. You can use others such as sea minerals and kelp to kick things up a notch.
I’ve been gardening for a long time, and I really enjoy getting into some of the more advanced techniques such as compost tea brewing and soil mineral balancing based on a soil test.
Still, I always have to remind myself that three basic techniques — (1) compost, (2) mulch and (3) broad-spectrum fertilizing — are the most important steps to take care of first.
Phil Nauta is a SOUL Certified Organic Land Care Professional. He’s the author of the book ‘Building Soils Naturally.” He has taught for Gaia College and is a past director for The Society For Organic Urban Land Care. He was an organic landscaper and ran an organic fertilizer business before starting smilinggardener.com to teach practical organic gardening tips to home gardeners.
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