By Aaron French, City Sprouts' Urban Farm Manager
If you’ve ever been to a City Sprouts workshop, read one of our newsletters or even glanced at one of our posts, you know how excited we get when talking about soil. Seriously... we kind of freak out. But why shouldn’t we? After all, healthy soil is the fundamental building block of all of the work we do at City Sprouts. Without it, our community gardens couldn’t function, we wouldn’t have our Decatur Urban Farm to host our summer interns, and we wouldn’t be able to grow the delicious produce featured in your favorite culinary workshop!
Let’s talk through some easy ways to ensure your home garden soil is healthy and productive.
1. Avoid Pesticides
Avoid using synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. All of these non-organic materials are detrimental to not just soil and plant health, but also human health! As the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) puts it, “ The presence and bio-availability of pesticides in soil can adversely impact human and animal health, and beneficial plants and soil organisms.” Pest problems? We suggest looking into integrated pest management.
2. Test Your Soil
Know and test your soil: Knowing what sort of soil you’re working with is one of the most important pieces of creating healthy soil. You can get an idea of the type of soil you have by using this NRCS soil survey. However, if you live in the city chances are your soil is classified as 'urban soil.' The second piece is to have your soil tested by a reputable lab (we recommend Midwest Labs, in west Omaha). This will tell you many important things about your soil including your soil organic matter, pH (level of acidity / alkalinity) and macronutrient makeup. For a few extra dollars, you can have the lab make recommendations on soil amendments for you, and it’s totally worth it!
Instead of tilling, we use a broadfork to loosen and aerate the soil
Avoid tilling your garden! While it may be the traditional way to prepare a garden plot, the act of rototilling is quite destructive to soil. In particular, tillage breaks up well-constructed soil structures which increases the risk of water runoff and soil erosion in addition to destroying habitat for hundreds of thousands of microscopic lifeforms that help keep our soil healthy and break down organic matter. The good folks at Iowa State Extension put together this great guide on the detriments of tillage on soil health.
4. Add Organic Matter
Generally, a high level of soil organic matter is good for fruit and vegetable production. Soil organic matter helps keep the soil particles together, which aids in improving the soil's ability to hold moisture. We add organic matter to our beds by planting and incorporating cover crops and adding compost before every planting. But organic matter comes in many forms….you could start by adding leaves from your trees to the soil in the fall and letting them decompose over winter. Every little bit helps! As usual, our good friends at NRCS have an easily digestible guide for you here.
5. Don't Farm Naked
No, no, no….you should definitely still wear clothes when out gardening in the front yard. What we mean here is, bare soil is completely contrary to healthy soil. Exposed soil is more susceptible to runoff, degradation, and compaction, while covered soil (preferably covered with cover crops, but mulch, tarps or cardboard are preferable to nothing!) can actually increase the health and fertility of the soil leading to more productive gardens.
There are so many more ways to increase the health of one of our most vital resources than we have room for here. Feel free to reach out and share how you maintain and increase soil health in your garden….we love hearing from you!