Feed Your Garden’s Soil and Your Garden Will Feed You

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When I moved to the Berkshires, I finally had space for a vegetable garden so I dug up some grass and planted one. The first year, the plants looked great and produced terrific vegetables with no pests. Joy! The next year, beetles arrived and the following year, aphids, cabbage worms and powdery mildew! Tomatoes had blossom-end rot. My vegetable yields went down.

I blamed myself—too busy, not weeding, not watering right. Then I blamed the weather—too wet, too dry, too cold or too hot—and rabbits! I didn’t think the earth needed extra help from me.

That first year of the beautiful vegetables was a result of growing in an untouched, nutrient-rich garden plot of living soil. No one had tilled it for years or stomped muddy paths through it. Previous residents had barely mowed it! The grass grew, and the grass was cut down; then, the cuttings broke down to enrich the soil with organic material for the next growing season.

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Some commercially available compost bins

I had removed the nutrient-rich vegetables but then hadn’t returned those nutrients to the soil for the next year. I needed a way to return organic matter, short of letting vegetables fall off the vines and rot on the soil.

Farmers spread manure, a naturally processed organic material loaded with living and decaying organisms. Since I didn’t have cows or horses to make manure or a way to transport others’ (not in my minivan, thanks!), I learned about compost. What I had in abundance was vegetable scraps like dead tomato vines, sticks, squash leaves, broccoli “greens”; coffee grounds; newspaper and so much cat hair. I would make the compost in my backyard. (You can also purchase excellent bags of already-prepared compost.)

Compost should be alive with organisms like bacteria and fungi as well as decaying organic matter and carbons (like sticks and my pet’s hair). Add this to your gardens and you have healthy living soil with specialized organisms living in every nook and cranny to create a sustainable soil ecosystem.

Briefly: There is a soil food web. As plants photosynthesize, they release sugars into the soil via their roots. Bacteria and fungi consume these sugars, allowing them to release enzymes that break down the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and all the minerals present in the rocks and soil. The bacteria and fungi absorb these nutrients. Now these bacteria and fungi proliferate and build upon themselves and soil particles, forming islands of nutrients that feed mites, protozoa and nematodes while also binding soil, building structure and opening pathways for water to follow.

Then, these organisms feed beetles and worms. As the organisms get more complex, they use less of the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and so on. They excrete what they can’t use in a form available to the plant’s roots!

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The Soil Food Web illustrates the connections among plants, microscopic organisms and more complex
animal forms. Courtesy of USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Soils.usda.gov

If your soil is loaded with all the living organisms suited to every level in the soil food web, there will be no room for pathogens to take hold. Diversity keeps every organism in balance. Your plants will have enough nutrition to set up all the natural defenses they need to prevent mildew from bonding on their surface. With the structures built by the microscopic organisms, air and water will percolate around the roots rather than saturate them, causing rot. So your first step to getting those great tomatoes again, bean plants that are beetle-proof and zucchini the size of a toddler, is feed the soil with compost.

Spread a 1-inch layer of compost every spring and every fall. You will add the living organisms that feed the beetles and worms that release the nutrients. Instead of diminishing returns, you’ll enjoy overabundance.

Jodi Cahillane is coordinator for advertising and publicity at Ward’s Nursery & Garden Center in Great Barrington. A member of the Western Massachusetts Master Gardener Association, she frequently leads classes on many garden topics. WardsNursery.com

Primary key to excellent garden health: Incorporate organic material into the soil

Compost …

  • • increases the organic matter in soil and helps build sound root structure.
  • • balances the pH of the soil.
  • • makes nutrients in soil more readily available to plants.
  • • attracts diverse bacteria, insects and microscopic animals that all take up space and reduce the spread of diseases.
  • • makes clay soils airy so that they can drain better.
  • • improves the ability of sandy soils to hold moisture and resist erosion.
  • • raises the vitamin and mineral content of food grown in a compost-rich garden.

What’s so important about N-P-K?

Responsible for green growth, nitrogen (N) depletes the quickest in soil so nothing is more efficient than encouraging the microscopic growth of organisms that excrete nitrogen in a form plants can use.

Phosphorus (P) helps vegetables and fruits form flowers that you need to form tomatoes, squash and zucchini, Brussels sprouts, beans, peas, etc.

Potassium (K) contributes the most to the plants’ overall root and cell structure for greater vigor.

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