What is Organic Soil?
Organic soil is the foundation of your vegetable garden. What makes it organic is the inclusion of organic material that provides a solid basis of nutrients for your plants. This helps to cut down on the need for commercially made fertilizers and improves soil structure, making it easier for your plant to absorb the important minerals they need. Sandy soil will not hold its moisture well. Heavy clay soil may prove too dense for healthy root development. Well-tilled soil is a must!
How do you make your soil organic? Now put your “fun cap” on because this is the best part! Okay, that’s a lie. I’ll admit it right up front. But if you go in with the right attitude, it won’t be that hard. I promise. And remember, we reap what we sow when it comes to an organic vegetable garden and we can’t sow if we don’t get digging. Are you smiling yet? Good.
Amend the Soil
Amending your soil with organic material such as composted manure, yard and kitchen scrap compost will get your dirt off to a good start. It does require a bit of digging, or should I say, tilling.
Now, one of the secrets to great plants is loose soil. Plants love it loose! Loose soil promotes strong, deep roots – don’t go there! – and encourages a healthy plant which means a productive plant. I learned this the hard way with carrots. Have you ever seen an “L” shaped carrot? I have. “I grew it myself!” she cried out with glee. But as a general rule, carrots will grow down as far as they can easily manage, until the going gets too tough, and then they grow sideways. Literally. Packed soil is not their friend. It’s not friendly to any plant, really, because it doesn’t promote good aeration which helps the plant take in the nutrients it needs.
Compost is the mixture of decomposed remnants of organic matter (those with plants and animal origins) used to improve soil structure and provide nutrients. A compost pile consists of plants, lawn clippings, kitchen scraps and the like. Formed into a pile and turned occasionally, nature takes its course and the materials break down. We add compost to our garden soil because it provides nutrition for vigorous plant growth, improves soil structure by creating aeration, increases the ability of soil to retain water, moderates soil pH, and encourages microorganisms whose activities contribute to the overall health of plants.
Whatever your natural soil, mix in compost, manure, and/or fertilizer as you proceed, whether it’s in a container or in ground. If you decide to go in ground, one of the keys to success are wide, raised beds. You can get deeper with less effort, and it helps promote good drainage, a key for healthy roots. In addition to compost, your plants will enjoy a healthy dose of other organic foodstuffs like worm poop and pee (we call this worm tea), eggshells, Epsom salts, bone meal, blood meal… The list goes on, but the key word is all-natural. Mother Nature knows what she’s doing and these sources provide essential vitamins and minerals for your plants.
Raised beds are key to success in an organic garden and using a tiller to form them helps immensely. (That, and the big strong arms of my man to run the thing!) It makes for beautifully tilled beds, with lovely rounded edges. And if your garden is established and undergoing a reformation, forgive your husband when he runs over your beautiful pepper plant in a nearby row. He didn’t mean it. The plant will grow back – but more importantly, did you REALLY want to do this yourself? You didn’t, so thank him for helping.
If you don’t have a tiller or a big strong man, don’t despair. You can do everything they can do with a shovel and steel rake. To till an established bed–or create a new one–stab a shovel down the length of your row.
Next, take your shovel and stab it at a perpendicular angle down the length of your row.
I do this on both sides, due to the width of my rows.
For a smooth surface–important when planting your smaller seeds, or an abundance of seeds like beans or garlic–drag the backside of a metal rake down the row. You might need to do this a few times, depending on how much dirt moves with your rake.
Caution: This will feel like exercise. Normally, I get my exercise on a stationary bike or by dancing around the house to peppy music, but when I have an “aggressive gardening day,” I forgo the indoor exercise. Remember, everything in moderation!
With your rows mechanically tilled, you’ll need to tidy them up. Once again, a little smooth talking will get you everywhere. Shovel the dirt from either side and pile it on your row to form a nice mound, which creates for a neat path on either side. But learn from my lesson and go for the flat top – shave the “round” off by drawing the back of a metal rake down the length of it, or use some other type of flat-edged tool. Perfectly mounded rows will look nice, but water runs off them at an alarming rate! Never a good thing when you’re trying to absorb the stuff. And speaking of absorbing, my natural soil is sand which repels rather well, so I mix in some composted manure to help it retain water, while adding the ever popular organic factor!
In between the rows, I lay straw or paper for the walkways. It helps with weed control. You have to lay the hay on pretty thick for it to work, but really, I just like the way it looks. I do a border, too. Makes a for a pleasant, neat and homey feel and since I’ll be spending a lot of time out here, it makes sense! One caveat with mulched rows: if you live in a humid climate and plan to grow plants susceptible to fungus, ie. zucchini or squash, understand this could make matters worse. Be vigilant!