It is necessary to get to know the characteristics of the soil in the garden before we start planting plants.
Certain kinds of weeds can be an indicator of soil fertility. If nettles, chamomiles, and burdock grow in the garden, the soil is fertile and scattered.
Sorrel and milfoil are growing in the soil which does not contain enough humus, while buttercup and plantain, which both have a strong root, are showing that the soil is hard and compact.
As we can see, soil rich in humus is the basis of the growing, ripening, and reproduction of many plant species. The soil like this is created from the decomposition of organic matter during a large number of years, and as a result, we have a structure that cannot be defined using chemical research methods solely.
Humus is a perfect combination of mineral substances and living organisms that adapt harsh organic matter to plants’ needs. It is a closed eco-system, with a sensitive structure. Disrupting it makes the soil lose its valuable properties.
The surface layer is a protective cover against organic waste (leaves, cut grass, and coarse compost). This layer has a significant role in the prevention of evaporation, reduction of weeds, and the formation of a crust that prevents the ventilation of deeper parts of the soil.
The layer of organic matter decomposition is the layer where all the organic matter that we have introduced into the soil. This work is done by billions of tiny organisms (bacteria, protozoa, algae, lichens). The survival of these tiny organisms, as well as the growth and life of earthworms, worms, and insects, requires moderate humidity, heat, and ventilation. The process of humus formation is slow and difficult in compacted, dry soil.
Experiments in New Zealand have shown that it’s possible to achieve higher wheat yields only by increasing the number of earthworms in the soil. (Source)
What we can do to improve the quality of the soil in the garden is to reproduce the earthworms and bring them into the soil.
The humus layer goes to a depth of 8 to 12 inches, depending on the substrate. This layer is a real factory of minerals and vitamins that plants absorb through their roots. The earthworms, which are innumerable in the fertile soil, tirelessly drill channels through the fertile soil, allowing the circulation of water and air, while their excrement is the perfect food for plants.
Soil types and characteristics
Smooth, without sandy ingredients. It is wet and sticky during winter, while during summer it forms solid and rocky pieces.
It is generally rich in nutrients. During summer it preserves water well and accepts the addition of humus well.
Clay particles stick together and do not pass air; the soil becomes difficult to work with. During winter, they are cold and difficult to heat. In the spring, they dry slowly and quite unevenly, and form clay lumps. In such soils, the seeds germinate slowly and the roots develop more slowly.
If it does not contain lime, add it occasionally in smaller quantities. Lime will partially separate the blocks of clay and improve processing. The best results are obtained by applying compost or manure in quantities of 6-11 lbs /10ft2 in autumn and by constantly adding organic matter to the surface throughout the year. This way, in about 2-3 years, we will get the soil with excellent agro-technical properties. Also, you can occasionally add fine sand mixed with fertilizer to the soil.
This is light and dry soil that easily crumbles and disintegrates when taken in the hand; rain easily carries it away.
It’s easy to handle, regardless of the season. It heats up easily in the spring so we can sow in it early. It allows circulation of air well and the roots develop well. This type of soil is particularly suitable for root vegetables and onions (if you add humus to it).
It is water permeable and lacks nutrients. Rain passes quickly and vertically through it, leaving the root without food. Also, it collapses on slopes and can have an acidic pH value.
You should add manure, peat, and compost in large quantities and place them deep into the soil. Humus and peat will improve water retention. If it is acidic add lime to it. During the vegetation, water the plants additionally with liquid plant fertilizers (nettles, cabbage leaves …). If it’s needed, apply artificial watering.
This type of soil has a variety of structures, and on the surface can often be muddy. It contains larger pieces of limestone in the depths.
It is easy to process, and easily heats up in the spring, and is suitable for alpinums (rocks).
This type of soil is poor in humus, difficult to cultivate when wet, and dries quickly in summer. Calcium from the soil inhibits the nutrition of plants which can slow down their growth. It is of alkaline reaction and most plants do not tolerate it.
Every fall and spring, add large amounts of manure, compost, and other organic matter.
This type of soil is dark brown to black. When we take it in hand it is soft and spongy.
If lime is added to it, it can be extremely fruitful.
Mostly absorbs and retains water well and needs watering. It can be very acidic and infertile.
To improve it, you could try drying, adding about 250 g /10 ft2 of lime (which lowers the acidity of the soil), and large amounts of compost and manure.
It is dark in color, crushes, and is easy to remove from the hands. It’s composed of clay, lime, and sand.
This type of soil is ideal for home gardens. If you regularly maintain a level of humus, the soil will have enough moisture, airiness, will be rich in nutrients, and be easy to warm up enough in the spring.
If water is not retained in it (if the soil is not drained) there are no important disadvantages.
Improvement steps you could make depend on the ratio of these three components: clay, lime, and sand. Marl soil with more sand or clay requires more organic matter; “heavier” soil requires more digging.
Acidity or alkalinity is extremely important for successful plant growth. When measuring the pH value of the soil, the scale ranges from 0-14, and pH-7 is a neutral value.
Many plants, including some vegetable species, can grow in soil with a value of pH-5 to pH-8 and will be more tolerable to acidic rather than alkaline environments.
Having in mind that some plant species inhabit environments of certain pH values, we can easily call them indicator plants.
On acid soils, you will find horsetail, mint, plantain, heather, and pansies.
On the slightly acidic and neutral soils, you will find chamomile, white radish, wine puree, clover, blackberry, wild blackberry, and wild rose.
Also, plants that we consider weeds in gardens can be indicators of soil fertility. If nettles, chamomile, and burdock grow in the garden, the soil is fertile and loose. Sorrel, horsetail, and milfoil grow on soils that do not contain enough humus, while buttercup and buckthorn with their strong roots show that the soil is hard and compact.
In case the soil has an inadequate pH value, you should know that vegetables are better in acidic than the alkaline environment. Correction of soil acidity can be done by introducing high-quality compost of proper pH value to the soil. Adding slaked and ground lime to the composting layers as well as pouring lime in a thin layer over the soil can contribute to improving the pH value of the compost and soil.
Organisms visible to our eyes in the soil can be earthworms, spiders, shrews, moles…
Invisible living beings that live in the soil are algae, bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes, protozoa, nematodes…
Some species among them are useful, while others are harmful to the soil structure and its chemical composition. Therefore, to maintain the fertility of the soil, there must be a microbiological balance within the soil, which enables the number of beneficial organisms to be maintained in a larger number than the harmful ones.
The soil is the basis of the gardener’s engagement, and they dedicate great care and attention to it. Proper maintenance of fertility, along with all other measures during cultivation, will make the garden a place where we will be able to follow nature and its laws and, with a lot of love, participate in its protection.
Mixing layers during the autumn tidying up the garden is extremely harmful to the living world in the soil.
By mixing the layers during the digging, the organisms from the layers next to them are suddenly thrown into an unsuitable and less stable world. Imagine the agony of earthworms when we bring them to the surface.
Since microorganisms (bacteria, algae, lichens) are responsible for adapting nutrients to plants’ needs, it is understandable that biologically determined gardeners do not dig the ground but occasionally shake it with specially adapted forks. Doing the soil shake we achieve better ventilation of deeper layers and unimpeded circulation of water, without disturbing the vertical stratification of the soil.
Unlike humans, nature acts with a lot of wisdom and attention towards its inhabitants. The surface layer of soil in forests, parks, and meadows is constantly covered with fallen leaves and dry grass and is an ideal hideaway for countless organisms that live there. Beneath that layer, life experiences countless transformations.
Whether it is a decorative part of the garden or a vegetable garden or orchard, the land should be constantly covered with finely chopped, biologically grown straw, leaves, or chopped plant cuttings. Peat, chaff, white, transparent or black bio-degradable plastic foil as well as mulch paper are also used for mulching.
Applying this method we achieve several types of extraordinary results. We try to give priority in the garden to natural materials for mulching, which with their decomposition contribute to the quality of the humus layer.
Advantages of mulching
- the soil is covered so there is no sudden drying and cracking of the surface layer,
- mulch reduces the amount of water needed for vegetables,
- we get ideal conditions (darkness, moderate humidity, and heat) for living organisms in the soil,
- we reduce weeding because we create unfavorable living conditions for undesirable plant species,
- mulching utilizes nitrogen in a better way,
- the fruits do not get dirty.
The constant influx of organic matter is crucial for the cultivation of most of the plant species we grow, especially vegetables and fruits. This process of rotting and creating humus is long-lasting and we are usually unaware of it and we are unable to follow it in our immediate environment.
Composting is a method that aims to speed up the process of decomposition of organic matter. In late autumn, leaves, pruned twigs of shrubs and fruits, overblown flowers, poppy stalks, sunflowers are getting burned in most yards… Meanwhile, nature teaches us that everything that has sprung from the ground should be returned to it. If we leave the leaves and chopped plant remains on the beds where we were growing vegetables or flowers, these will decompose during the winter as part of a continuous cycle of energy transformation in nature.
Today, a method is being implemented all around the planet that aims to accelerate the process of decomposition of organic matter. This method is called composting.
When choosing a place for compost, we must choose the one that is sheltered from the sun and wind. It is best to place it under a fruit tree. That way, we will prevent excessive evaporation and drying of the compost. You must ensure enough space around the compost so that it can be accessed with garden wheelbarrows and for getting all necessary jobs done.
The place for compost should have a fence made of wooden boards or bricks. You can also use various products made of wire and metal plates – anything that meets the needs of gardeners. We recommend a composting place made of three parts, three compartments, made of slats and boards, painted with natural color for wood.
In making the piles for compost, we’ll firstly dig through the bottom of the compartment, and then line up large cut branches or corn stalks and leaves (sunflower stems, poppy seeds). Digging up the soil here will enable the earthworms out of the ground to get the feed-in an easier way, and the stems and twigs, that are making drainage layer, enabling better circulation of air. The leaves, herbs, kitchen herbs, and animal waste are the most common material for making compost for small gardens. We’ll put together leaves of several fruit species and mix them because it gives us more equable unity compost.
We will mix the leaves with dried grass, waste from the house or garden and arrange it in a layer 6-8 inches thick. Beyond that goes the layer of soil, then again a layer consisted of waste and so on. When the pile reaches a height of 60 inches, we’ll cover it with a layer of soil.
In two to three weeks, the first phase of composting will be completed, and the compost will be reduced by half. Earthworms from the soil get into the immature compost prepared in this way and begin to decompose it. When the last earthworm leaves the compost, it is ready and has a smell of forest soil. Organically oriented gardeners call it “brown gold”. When we fill to the top the first box with the waste we cover it with the soil and leave it. Then we arrange the waste in the second, and then in the third compartment. The first pile needs 3-5 months to ripen, so when we fill the third compartment, we can empty the first one and so on in a circle.
Organic waste can be used to make compost:
- kitchen wastes and plant parts from the garden – finely chopped (tea residues, vegetable peels, coffee residue),
- weeds – leave them in the sun to fore and then arrange between the layers of cardboard or newspaper paper,
- grounded slaked lime – extremely important for the pH value of compost,
- parts of flowers and medicinal plants (except rose and wormwood stalks),
- leaves – (except oak and walnut) arranged in 4-8 inches thick layers,
- peat – in smaller quantities because it negatively affects the pH value of compost,
- animal excrement – excrement from chickens, rabbits, pigeons,
- straw – (chopped, organically grown) and other materials for spreading under livestock (ferns),
- paper and cardboard – wet them and arrange in thin layers between the layers of waste (earthworms very much love cardboard),
- house dust, garbage from the yard,
- grass – if grass contains seeds, we will leave it to rot in the water,
- wood ash – it is extremely rich in potassium, sprinkled in a thin layer,
- residues of cotton and wool,
- poultry feathers,
- blood and bone meal – improve the mineral value of compost,
- grounded hooves and horns,
- stone flour (grounded limestone and dolomite).
It must not be put in compost:
- stones, bricks, rubble,
- thicker branches (cut them into chips in a twig chopper),
- weeds full of seeds,
- diseased plant parts ( the best option is to burn them).
To improve the mineral composition of compost, you can add lime, stone flour, hornbeam, or ash between the layers. You can also put chamomile, yarrow, or nettle stalks between the layers.
The need for compost in gardens is extremely high. That’s why time is an important factor. Under optimal conditions (in the summer months and with the use of activators), compost can mature in two months. In the colder period, the process lasts from three to five months, sometimes even up to one year.
To speed up the process of obtaining compost, gardeners have devised several methods and preparations of plant origin, which we call herbal activators.
Herbal Activator Recipe
Ingredients: chamomile, dandelion, hawthorn, valerian, nettle, oak bark, bee honey, and milk sugar.
You can grow all the plants needed for the preparation of the activator in your garden. You will harvest them in the morning, dry them in the shade, chop them, sift them and leave each plant separately in a dark bottle until use. Large remnants of herbs can be put on compost. The bark can be scraped and sifted through a fine sieve, and bee honey can be mixed with milk sugar. Take 1 drop of honey for 1 teaspoon of milk sugar. Mix both ingredients well and close.
Ingredients: Take 1 teaspoon of each herb and oak bark and 1 teaspoon of a mixture of milk honey and sugar. Stir well and keep closed.
Usage: Pour 1/2l of rainwater and half a teaspoon of activator into the bottle. Close, shake, and leave to stand for 24 hours. Then make holes in the compost with a stick at a distance of 10-25 inches and pour 6 spoons of the activator into each hole. Close the holes with fine, dry earth.
An herbal activator is a preparation that is added to compost in small quantities.
In case you can’t find all the necessary ingredients, you can also do the following:
dissolve 100 g of sugar in 10 liters of lukewarm water, stir and slowly pour a sweet solution, or sprinkle a pile of compost.
By sowing mustard, oilseed rape, legumes, winter barley, incarnate clover, hybrid lullaby, peas, and other plants in late autumn, we will improve the structure of the soil and enrich it with nitrogen. Garden beds or free rows in garden beds should be sown in September with certain types of plants listed above or with a mixture of green manure. Their roots will shake the soil by winter, and the plants will accumulate enough nitrogen, which will remain in the soil due to freezing. This nitrogen fertilizer will be used by vegetables and other plants during spring sowing. Frozen green parts will cover and protect the land in late autumn. In places where the ground is still hard, it can be scattered with hayforks. In this way, we get both – high-quality organic fertilizer and mulched soil, and thus contribute to the maintenance and fertility of the soil.
Significance of worms
We already knew something about that diligent and at the same time gentle inhabitant of fertile soil. The importance of earthworms in maintaining the fertility, structure, and water-air regime of the soil is immeasurable.
Worms are those that process partially decomposed plant residues in their digestive tract, producing fertile feces with a large number of ions of nitrate, phosphate, potassium, magnesium, calcium, etc., available to the plant.
Passing through the ground, worms drill corridors that cover between 20-40% of the total volume of the soil. These corridors represent an important system for air and water circulation, which is necessary for the healthy roots of plants. Research has shown that 90% of plant roots grow in corridors that produce worms. (Source)
In addition to processing half- decomposed organic matter, worms destroy numerous overwintering phytopathogenic organisms and harmful insects and lead to their reduction in the next generation.
According to the way of life and the type of food they process, two types of worms are important to us:
- Earthworm (Eisenia foetida). This type of worm, for life and growth, needs moisture, heat, and organic matter in a state of decomposition. It is reddish and 2-3 inches long. In just a pile of immature compost, a large number of these worms can be found in a small area. When they digest the waste, they move to another pile. In the garden soil, these worms die because garden soil does not provide them with the required living conditions.
- The field earthworm (Lumbricus Terrestris) is longer than the earthworm that lives in compost. It is brown, flat, and incomparably thicker. Field earthworm avoids waste that is already rotting and digests what is left behind from earthworms from compost. Passing through the soil, it makes long corridors through which water and air can circulate. It releases mineral substances from deeper layers to the soil surface.
Today, earthworms are endangered by man’s constant aspiration to change what is naturally given, in their favor. Even the slightest human intervention with the use of large construction machinery, tractors, and trucks is destructive to the earthworms and their natural environment. Light, lack of oxygen, dehydration, as well as excessive moisture, are the causes that lead to their death.
Due to the exceptional quality of the feces that earthworms “produce”, they are grown in the world today to obtain high-quality fertilizer. Lumbrihumus or fertilizer produced of earthworm feces has exceptional properties. It contains 11 times more potassium, 7 times more magnesium, 7 times more phosphorus, and 6 times more nitrate than manure. One ton of earthworm humus can replace 5 tons of manure. However, when adding Lumbrihumus, the actual needs of vegetables for food should be taken into account.
Experiments in New Zealand have achieved higher wheat yields only by increasing the number of earthworms in the soil.
What we can do to improve the quality of the soil in the garden is to multiply the number of earthworms and bring them into the soil.
Other substances used for fertilization
Apart from compost, mulching materials, and green manure, other materials of organic and mineral origin are also used in organic production.
Fertilizers of organic origin
Fresh, half-burnt, or burnt animal manure is used for vegetables. Fresh manure is used to make warm beds because, together with straw, chaff, leaves, and other organic material, it releases the heat necessary for plant growth in the winter months. If fresh manure is introduced into the soil, then it is done in the fall and with the use of appropriate microbiological preparations with which we achieve faster decomposition of the substance. The advantage of fresh manure is reflected in a large amount of organic matter as well as the increase and maintenance of microbiological balance.
Semi-burnt animal manure is most often used for sowing early spring crops. It is plowed in the fall and for late spring crops in the spring. After dispersal, the manure should be plowed immediately, because up to 50% of its nutritional value can be lost in just a few days. Half-burned manure can also be spread in furrows and houses.
Completely thick manure has a fine, crumbly structure and can be used alone or in combination with other substrates. It is used for fertilization immediately before sowing by making a sowing layer, then for covering seeds and seedling production.
Beef manure is the most widely used animal manure. It must be obtained from cattle whose diet is the result of growing crops according to the principles of organic production or originate from rural areas. The spreading material should also be free of harmful substances and be a product of organic production.
From an adult beef, we can obtain 9-12 tons of manure annually.
Horse manure is one of the hot and dry manures. From an adult horse, 5-8 tons of garbage is obtained annually.
Sheep manure is one of the thrusts manures. Only 0.4-0.8 tons of manure is obtained annually from one sheep.
Pig manure is a moist and cold fertilizer. One pig produces annually 1-1.5 tons of fertilizer.
Poultry manure is dry. It’s obtained in small quantities, but it is rich in phosphorus and potassium. In addition, it contains less water than other fertilizers, contains less pulp, has more organic matter, it works faster, and can be applied for 10-15 days before planting.
Liquid manure consists of liquid and boiled excrement of domestic animals, especially collected in slurry pits. It is mainly used as a supplementary fertilizer, which acts faster. Before use, it must be diluted and taken to the garden early in the morning or in quiet, cloudy weather. In order not to lose nutrients, it is desirable to pour the solution into the soil.
Peat is an organic fertilizer that primarily improves the structure of the soil. The soil then becomes more permeable, retains moisture better and less crust is being created. By composition, peat is a nitrogen fertilizer and can be found on the market with the addition of macro and microelements. Peat is an essential ingredient of soil-fertilized mixtures.
Earthworm manure (Lumbrihumus)
It is a mixture of decomposed and undecomposed organic matter originating from manure, which has passed through the digestive tract of worms. This fertilizer has a great effect on the growth and early maturation of plants.
Fertilizer materials of mineral origin:
Industrial by-products of animal origin which are being added to the land consist of:
- nitrogen-rich blood meal,
- basket of flour rich in phosphorus,
- bone charcoal,
- fishmeal is used in the production of seedlings,
- meat flour,
- ground feathers and hair, fur, and remnants of the dairy industry.
Industrial by-products of plant origin are:
- pod remains,
- oilseed meal, molasses residues,
- wastes from mushroom production,
- various limestones and dolomites,
- granite powder rich in silicon, potassium, and trace minerals,
- zeolites are natural minerals formed by recrystallization of volcanic ash and are used as a recultivator of degraded soils,
- rock flour is made by grinding gneiss, basalt, and granite,
- various types of clay,
- microelements, elemental sulfur…
These fertilizers include nitrogen and phosphoric bacteria isolated in laboratories, which naturally inhabit the soil. Non-disturbing habitats of flora and fauna have natural self-regulation of populations of harmful and beneficial species.