Fruits, vegetables, and flowers consume large amounts of nutrients from the soil. These nutrients must be replaced to maintain healthy soil. The addition of soil amendments and organic fertilizers feeds the soil. In turn, the soil feeds the plants. Well-balanced soil, rich in nutrients, provides the food your plants need to produce an abundance of nutritionally rich and flavorful fruits and vegetables.
There are three ways in which to improve your garden’s soil – compost, mulches, and cover crops.
Composting produces a well-balanced soil amendment, reduces the amount of trash sent to the landfill, and supports the environment. Making compost requires nitrogen, carbon, water, and air. Nitrogen comes from greens: grass clippings, produce scraps, eggshells, weeds that have not gone to seed, and coffee grounds. Carbon comes from browns: dried leaves, shredded newspaper and paper egg cartons. The mixture should be approximately one-third greens and two-thirds brown.
There is a variety of commercially available compost bins. However, a simple bin can be constructed with inexpensive materials or items you may already have on hand: trashcans, cinderblocks, wire fencing or discarded pallets. Even a plain pile will work. Keep the pile moist. Occasionally turn with a garden fork to increase airflow and speed up the composting process.
A freshly mulched garden bed is more than just aesthetically pleasing. Mulch serves many purposes. It suppresses weeds, retains soil moisture, moderates soil temperatures, and helps prevent disease. Additionally, organic mulches enrich the soil as they break down.
Mulch is any product that covers the surface of the soil – ground up bark or hardwood, leaves, grass clippings, compost, stone aggregate, and artificial products such as rubber. Some of the best garden mulches are free. By using compost, grass clippings, and leaves from your landscape, you are providing wonderful nutrients for your crops and preventing the introduction of foreign or invasive weeds. For fruit and vegetable gardens, place thick layers – 6 pages or more – of newspaper underneath organic mulch, one that breaks down and enriches the soil.
Growing cover crops is for the sole purpose of improving the soil. Large-scale agricultural operations have been using these crops since the early 1900s. Farmers knew that cover crops would add organic matter, suppress weeds, prevent soil erosion, support microorganisms, and turn the sunshine into soil-borne nutrients. Many cover crop plants grow deep roots that break up and aerate packed subsoil.
Most of the information published about growing cover crops is tailored to the farmer and the farm’s large equipment. All that is required for the home gardener to enjoy the benefits of cover crops is a garden fork or small tiller.
The ideal cover crop grows quickly, produces many leaves and stems, and is easy to remove. Timing is also a factor – different cover crops are planted at different times during the season. Your state agricultural extension service can provide plant recommendations.
If you have tough invasive summer weeds, try planting buckwheat throughout the summer. Buckwheat grows a rapid speed, choking out weeds. It can reach two feet high in less than a month.
Most cover crops are grown to protect the soil over the winter months. Late summer is the time to plant barley. Barley collects excess nitrogen in the soil so that it doesn’t leach out over the winter. Plant oats, winter peas, crimson clover, and cereal rye should in early fall.
Don’t forget the flowers. They make wonderful companions for cover crops and provide foraging grounds for beneficial insects. Try planting dwarf sunflowers with oats in late summer or bachelor’s buttons with crimson clover in early fall.
When it is time to prepare your beds for planting, the cover crops can be taken down in one of two ways – pulling up and tilling into the soil. Pulling and composting cover crop plants is the preferable method for home gardeners. When you remove the plants completely, the bed is immediately ready for planting. Composting the plants produces well-balanced soil amendments.
If you have a tiller, you can simply till the plants under. When using this method, however, you must wait two to three weeks for the biomass to break down before planting. The fresh biomass of cover crops may inhibit plant growth and even prevent seeds from germinating.