Improving Garden Soils For Herbs

Improving the quality of soil makes you feel deeply satisfied and there are definitely several reasons for such a fulfilling feeling. In fact, the soil is among the most valuable resources we have. As the soil preferences of different herbs are so varied, it is perhaps impossible to provide any guideline on ways to develop a soil that will be excellent for growing all types of herbs.

How do you describe a good soil? Well, a soil having outstanding texture, constitution and permeability are considered to be a good soil. In addition, a good soil will also have a wonderful smell. It will also be absorbent, brittle, aerated and finely textured. A good soil is complete with valuable soil life and its health works to put off all toxic organisms from populating it – something very similar to a fit and fine human body naturally fending off all pathogens that are responsible for various diseases. A nourishing or beneficial soil is vigorously inhabited by earthworms as well as microscopic organisms like bacteria. In addition, it also contains certain growths like algae, actinomycetes, protozoa and fungi, which have a complicated interrelationship among them. When all these organisms are present in a soil, it is not only healthy and living but becomes an altogether different world by itself. Each of the organisms mentioned here and some more play a vital role in decaying organic substances present in the soil and thereby, makes it richer.

It is worth mentioning here that clay, as well as sandy soils, are not considered to be the most excellent soil types, as they characterize a disparity of the perfect soil ecology. In fact, not many gardeners get a good soil when they start gardening on a small plot for the first time. Thus, they need to work with the different not so good soil types – either clay or sandy soils and enhance their quality. It has been found that in nearly all instances, clay soils enclose a remarkable range as well as the quantity of mineral nutrients. However, it becomes problematic for the plants to make use of the nutrients present in a clay soil, as the structure of the soil is extremely dense.

You may adopt various organic methods to lighten the structure of a clay soil. Among these, gardening experts recommend that you put rice hull into clay soil and work them down up to roughly three feet in depth. There are other experts who suggest that you use adequate rice hulls making the soil look like rice hulls with bits of clay sticking on them. Subsequently, they recommend that you continue to change the soil by adding organic substances till the soil contains 50 percent original modified clay and 50 percent organic material.

You can speed up the decomposition of the soil by means of scattering the modified soil along with a tea prepared from stinging nettles and manure soaked in unpolluted water for roughly a week or little more over the soil. Before scattering the tea, you should ensure that it has been watered down such that its color turns pale. Alternatively, you may also use bacterial cultures that are prepared commercially for the purpose. Till the land once more in the subsequent year and plant a leguminous cover crop with a view to improving the soil by nitrogen fixation. In case, the cover crop you have planted is deep-rooted, it will bring up nutrients from the subsoil by means of its elongated roots.

On the other hand, unlike clay soil, sandy soil does not contain nutrients. While a clay soil contains nutrients in large variety and amount, it is not permeable and hence, the plants are unable to assimilate those. In contrast, sandy soils do not contain much nutriment but are extremely pervious. You can only use one method to improve the quality of sandy soils. What you need to do is continuously add organic substances like leaves, kitchen wastes, manure, and green manure to the sandy soil. If you continue doing this for about two to three years, these organic substances will work wonders. Well, it is definitely plenty of hard work, but if a gardener is committed, he will agree that the end product is worth undertaking the labor. After three years, when he collects a handful of soil from his garden, he will notice that the soil that was once just sand, has turned out to be alive, sweet-smelling, and spongy making it a good soil.

Cultivation

Like there are several perceptions regarding the different gardening systems, the notions about soil cultivation are also varied. While numerous gardeners employ farm machinery for cultivation, biodynamic gardeners are of the view that machines are extremely heavy and make the soil more compact. Therefore, they like to plow using their hand with a view to maintaining the aeration of the soil.

In fact, a biodynamic gardener will usually engage in ‘double-digging’ his garden’s soil and during the process, separate the subsoil from the topsoil carefully. The concept of double-digging is not a new one. About 2,000 years back, the primeval Greeks were aware of the fact that plants thrive excellently in the earth that has been moved due to landslides. It has been found that these types of soils are loose, excellently aerated, and can also absorb moisture, warmth, and nutrients without any difficulty.

If you are following the biodynamic method of cultivation, the ability to breathe is vital. In fact, when you engage in ‘double-digging’ your purpose is to undertake deep cultivation – for instance, digging up to two spades or roughly 24 inches is believed to be fine. Double-digging also aims to split the hard layers below the soil and enable the moisture as well as the gasses underneath the ground to come upwards, while facilitating the movement of gasses and moisture from the atmosphere downward.

Testing your soil for nutrients and pH

You can save plenty of money if you test the soil of your garden for its nitrogen, phosphorus and potash content with a view to determining the pH level of the soil.

In case you find that the pH level of the soil in your garden is very elevated, you may add a stratum of decayed pine needles, acid peat moss or oak leaf mold. On the other hand, if you want to increase the pH level of the soil you need to include some dolomitic lime in the soil. Properly prepared compost is considered to be the best-balanced material that can be incorporated into the soil. In fact, methodically aged compost naturally aids in rectifying alkaline as well as acidic soil conditions. When you add enough organic substances to the soil, the plants generally have a propensity to endure a wider assortment of alkaline or acidic soil conditions and yet be in excellent health.

Trace elements and soil deficiencies

Humus naturally contains trace elements and they are also necessary for any good soil, which is healthy too. Today, there are many soils that are dangerously imbalanced owing to excessive use of chemical and artificially manufactured fertilizers as well as the use of various other inappropriate farming methods. In addition, some types of soils naturally contain very less amount of specific trace elements. Hence, it would be a fine ‘health insurance’ for your garden’s soil if you ensure that the soil in your garden is loaded with all trace elements, which are vital for the plants to flourish.

Organic gardeners usually employ various techniques, for instance, mulching, composting and adding soil amendments such as fish fertilizers and seaweed. All these techniques aid in sustaining the vital trace elements in your soil. In addition, there are certain plants that work to accumulate the trace elements. When gardeners grow these ‘weeds’ between cultivating different crops, compost them or utilize them in the form of green manure, they are particularly helpful in redeveloping or renewing the soil. For example, stinging nettle is one plant that helps to accumulate trace elements like calcium, potassium, sulfur and iron. Similarly, chamomile helps to concentrate sulfur, calcium, nd potash inside the plant’s tissues. Another plant that concentrates trace elements zinc and potash is dandelion. Similarly, valerian improves the content of potash in the soil as well as the adjoining areas where it grows. Gardeners in China grow these plants on the soil directly for fertilizing their crops organically.

Composting

Omitting compost from this article would leave the discussion on soil regeneration or redevelopment incomplete. Precisely speaking, compost is garbage that gets a rebirth in the form of humus. Several organic materials, including weeds, grass cuttings, kitchen scraps (excluding bones and meat), garden residues like stalks and vines, nut shells, leaves, hay, saw dust, manure, sewage sludge form excellent compost. In addition, various organic waste materials like vegetable pulp discarded by juice companies, coffee wastes, leather dust, and wastes from breweries are also good for being used as compost.

Basically, there are two major compost types – aerobic compost (with air) and anaerobic compost (devoid of air). Among the two, aerobic composting is used more often, as it is faster. Below, we will briefly discuss three different aerobic methods.

Indore compost: This aerobic method was developed by Sir Albert Howard, who undertook valuable agricultural research in Indore, a central Indian town. In fact, Sir Howard’s findings laid the foundation for the movement of organic gardening. This compost method is also considered to be the most traditional aerobic practice. This compost method entails making compost in open piles or inside bins. The piles are made such that they usually measure anything between 10 to 30 feet in length, 6 feet in width and about 3 feet to 5 feet in height. The foundation of the pile is made by laying a plant waste layer measuring 6 inches in height and covering the total area on which the pile is supposed to be built. The plant waste layer may comprise several organic matters like saw dust, leaves, straw, hay, garden residue or wood chips. Subsequently, this method involves adding two layers of manure as well as animal bedding to the pile.

Then, you add a thin layer of topsoil measuring about 1/8 inch in thickness to the pile. After that, you may spread phosphate rock, lime, wood ashes or granite dust over the layer of earth. As the height of the pile increases, you need to water it at every stage and repeat the layers in the same order till the height of the pile is about three to five feet. At the same time, it is important that you ensure that the pile maintains its aerating characteristic. In order to keep the pile properly ventilated, you need to make several tubes with wire netting pieces and place them vertically in the middle of the pile, at a distance of roughly 3.5 feet from each other.

After several days of its completion, the pile will heat up and start decaying. Once completed, you can use a pitchfork to turn the heap after two to three weeks and once again after five weeks from its completion. When you follow this procedure thoroughly, within three months the compost or peat will be ready for use.

Compost in 14 days: Another way of making aerobic compost is to follow the method known as compost in 14 days. Compost prepared following this method decays sufficiently and is ready for application in the garden within just 12 days to 14 days. This method entails proper shredding of all organic materials that would be used for making the compost. Unless this is done, this method will not work satisfactorily. Subsequently, the shredded organic substances are blended together and heaped into a pile that is roughly five feet in height and no higher. You need to turn the pile once in two to three days using a pitchfork till the compost is fully prepared.

Biodynamic compost: This method involves using six different herbs, such as chamomile blossoms, dandelion flowers, oak bark, stinging nettle, yarrow blossoms and valerian flowers. These herbs are mixed and put into the compost heap with a view to facilitate the ripening of the compost as well as enhance its aptitude to preserve nutriments. One teaspoon of the biodynamic preparations made appropriately is placed inside a hole measuring about 20 inches in depth and angled downwards into the compost heap. It is important to note that the biodynamic compost preparation with stinging nettle needs to be made in amount of four to five teaspoonfuls, but the preparations with the other herbs should be made in amount of just the level of a teaspoon and not heaped. Subsequently, the holes are filled up with the herbal preparations and closed.

Generally, people engaged in biodynamic gardening prefer locating their compost heaps close to oak trees, as the oak tree offers a favourable environment beneath its branches, enabling the development of good soil in the surrounding area. The compost piles are situated no less than six feet away from the tree trunk with a view to prevent the development of any disease in the oak tree.

Nitrogen fixing

It is important to note that three key elements are necessary for the health of the soil and among these elements nitrogen affects the growth of plants most significantly. Unlike humans, plants do not have the ability to absorb nitrogen mixed with oxygen and other gases directly from the atmosphere. As an alternative, they have to rely on bacteria that fix nitrogen in the soil to obtain this essential element.

It is interesting to note that lightning flashes have an incredible power, possess the aptitude for nitrogen fixation in the soil. A number of scientists are of the view that in fact such type of contact between the soil and lightning enabled the development of first life on our planet. Nevertheless, the bacteria present in the soil are more reliable as well as a common means for nitrogen. This way, these nitrogen-fixing bacteria help to enrich the quality of soils that have low nitrogen content. It has been found that the nitrogen-fixing bacteria thrive on the roots of numerous leguminous plants – precisely speaking, more than 1,350 species. Such plants include alfalfa, beans, clover, peas and vetch. In addition, it has been found that a number of trees also possess the ability to fix essential element in the soil, for instance acacia, autumn olive and red alder. Some shrubs also help in fixing nitrogen and these can be used as hedge plants around a garden as well as orchards to enhance the fertility of the soil.

A number of cover crops like alfalfa and clover are usually cut and put into the earth prior to their blossoming. During this stage, these cover crops release plenty of nitrogen within a period of just a few weeks. This is considered to be an ancient way of green manuring and several cultures around the world have used it over the ages. Occasionally, some gardeners use such nitrogen-rich plants for mulching, instead of cutting and putting them into the soil to decompose and release the essential element. In addition, some gardeners also cut these plants and include them in their compost pile. Irrespective of the manner these nitrogen-rich plants may be used by the gardeners, eventually they yield the same result – provide additional nitrogen to the earth.

A number of legumes are fit for sowing during the later part of summer and they grow all through the winter months provided the temperatures do not drop below freezing point. Such legumes include Austrian winter pea, bur clover, crimson clover, sour clover, rough pea, fenugreek and winter vetch. There are other legumes that grow well during the summer and one of the most common summer legumes is alfalfa. In addition, crotalaria is one legume that can even thrive well in infertile sandy soils found in the southern climates. On the other hand, red clover grows excellently in places having cool temperate climatic conditions. Lots of people inhabiting the southern climates grow plenty of a legume called lespedeza. Sweet pea and cowpea are two legumes that have the aptitude to flourish in nearly all types of soils and everywhere.

Mulching

Mulching the soil has multiple benefits. For instance, when you spread mulch on top of the soil in your garden, it not only safeguards the plants from excessive heat during summer and extreme cold conditions during the winter months, but also enriches the soil, helps to preserve moisture and prevents growth of weeds. In fact, a number of gardeners have turned mulching into a genuine art. Majority of the gardeners are of the view that when the soil in their garden has been drained out they need to develop it again by means of covering it with compost prior to starting the no-digging mulch method.

You can make good mulch using almost all organic substances, for instance, rice hulls, a mixture of saw dust and soybean meal, straw mixed with grated leaves, cocoa hulls, buckwheat hulls, grass clippings, shredded corncobs, cornstalks, pine needles and alfalfa hay. You can used mulch to good advantage in the flower, vegetable and herb gardens; in orchard as well as in the fields. In addition, several gardeners grow different cover crops like millet, soybeans, vetch, rye, clover, alfalfa and buckwheat and cut these plants for using them in the form of mulch. A number of gardeners also include a thin stratum of kelp or seaweed in their mulch, because these plants are loaded with various valuable minerals.

It is very important to consider the quality of nutriments contained by the materials that you are use for mulching. Organic substances like corn cobs, straw and saw dust contain very low levels of nitrogen and hence it would prove to be beneficial if you mix them with leguminous mulch. On the other hand, pine needles are known to be acidic like the oak leaves and therefore they are not very useful for mulching plants requiring an alkaline or neutral soil. However, you may use them for mulching if you are growing strawberries or other plants like azaleas, bearberry, rhododendrons and trailing arbutus.

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