Recently I attended a Garden Writer’s Conference in Seattle. It was inspiring, but not for the reasons you’d think. The city of Seattle, with its beautiful gardens, was amazing. The conference trade show was chock full of vendors displaying gardening wares. I even picked up a sample of a new variety of hardy blue flowered hydrangea. And yes, I did get to visit that Mecca for plant nerds, the famous Heronswood Gardens on Bainbridge Island. But what really made the trip a success was a lecture I attended on soil. Yes, I love soil.
It’s not everyone who can get passionate about soil, but it inspires me. After all, soil is not just dirt, but a living, breathing entity on which our life depends. The speaker was Elaine Ingham from Oregon State University. Her lifelong passion is studying the unseen, microbial life of the soil. She’s been exploring the relationship of soil microbes to soil and plant health.
A healthy soil food web, as she calls it, has many benefits for gardeners. A healthy balance of soil microbial life creates better soil structure, reduced water use, better water holding capacity, more nutrient retention, and less plant disease. The key to healthy soil is the right mix of fungi, bacteria, protozoa, and other microbes tailored to the plants you’re growing.
Now, this information is fascinating to a soil geek like me, but it has practical applications too. When a home gardener adds the “biology back to their soil,” they are creating a situation where they will have fewer problems, more production, and less maintenance work in the garden. I like that idea. The key to bringing the life back is adding compost or compost teas. Apply a partially decomposed compost now to let microbes munch and build their numbers through the winter. In spring add a finished compost before planting, or apply a compost tea to actively growing plants. A finely crafted, completely decomposed compost is like gold. If you have healthy soil, you’ll only need to add a 1-inch thick layer mixed into the top few inches of soil. For soils that are struggling, apply a layer that’s two to three inches thick.
If you don’t want to make compost yourself, check local sources for farm crafted compost. Good compost should have a rich, dark brown color, earthy smell, and crumbly texture. To make compost teas, Ingham suggests using finished compost and aerators to introduce oxygen into the compost tea bucket. This promotes the growth of aerobic organisms, which are much more beneficial to plants than the anaerobic ones that normally flourish in compost teas. With this little bit of soil savvy, you’ll be producing healthier flowers, fruits, and vegetables next year.
This is Charlie Nardozzi from Hinesburg.
Charlie Nardozzi is an all-around gardening expert with a special fondness for tomatoes and roses.