I have just finished up my Organic Master Gardener course and wanted to share my last assignment. Without healthy soil there can be no healthy plants and without healthy plants, no healthy people. For those of you interested, Below is my Soil Management Plan.
Soil Management plan
The primary solution to all of the below problems os soil structure, water holding capacity, compaction, slow drainage, and soil fertility is to “add organic matter” so I will try to elaborate on what types and where it will come from.
I’m still a little confused about the soil structure. Both my soil tests showed a Sandy Loam but I obviously must have been doing something wrong because the natural soil structure of much of my property has a high-clay content.
Because of the high clay content, my soil will be prone to compaction and slow drainage. The water holding capacity will be quite good although that doesn’t necessarily mean the water will be available to plants. Addressing the soil structure problem will also do much to help with compaction, drainage and water holding capacity.
There are different areas on the property that will need attention. I will focus most of my attention at the beginning on the vegetable gardens and fruit tree guilds.
For the deep bed gardens I will bring in a few yards of organic topsoil. As an experiment I will do two beds with Meadows Landscaping soil which I believe is pasteurized , meaning, no life. I will do the other two with Transform Compost Garden Blend which has minerals added and I think contains micro-organisms. After that I will treat all four beds equally. Once they are planted (I know I’m late but so is spring), I will apply a worm casting compost tea to inoculate the soil with a healthy diversity of micro-organisms. I am planning a mix between square foot gardening and polycultural-planting so that almost all of the soil is covered by organic material. This will help shade the soil and keep it moist in the sun and protect from erosion in heavy rains.
Other than bringing in good top soil the only real way to improve the soil structure is to add organic matter. I will do this in a few different ways. First, when I harvest the gardens I will leave the roots and stems in the soil where they will be composted in place over the winter. I will also plant a cover crop of Rye, White Clover , and Vetch in the fall to overwinter. This will protect the soil from erosion during the winter rains and will provide a lot of organic matter next spring when I turn it in to the soil. Next spring I should also have a fair amount of compost to add as well. It will not happen overnight but following these steps over the course of the next few years should improve the soil structure significantly which will in turn help with compaction, drainage and water holding capacity.
Another way of limiting compaction is inherent in the raised bed system we have. They are 20’ by 5’ beds and we will try as much as possible not to walk on them at all.
Optimizing soil fertility will be done through adding organic matter like compost but also through specifically adding micro-organisms. As mentioned before, I will be applying worm casting tea when the garden is planted and then also consistently to the plants as they grow. The micro-organisms teeming in the tea will be transferred to the garden where they will help the plants with nutrient uptake and protection from disease. Another important aide to nutrient uptake is Mycorrhizal Fungi. I will inoculate the seeds with it before planting. As the plants grow the Mycorrhizal Fungi will act as a large extension to the root systems allowing a much larger area to be mined for nutrients. I don’t know that the soil will have an abundance of nutrients so I will use a homemade organic fertilizer consisting of Alfalfa Meal, Green Sand, Bone Meal, Dolomite Lime, and Worm castings which should be well balanced while not displacing important micronutrients. There is a ton of comfrey growing along our ditch and nettles growing along our fences. Both Comfrey and Nettles are nutrient accumulators and fix nitrogen. I am thinking about harvesting it, shredding it and using it as a mulch which will add even more nutrients to the soil. Both Comfrey and Nettles are very fast growing and will be added to the compost as well.
In addition to Micorrhizal fungi, I have been reading about growing other mushrooms alongside vegetables which also helps with nutrient uptake. The combination of Elm Oyster mushrooms and Brussels Sprouts and Broccoli have been known to work magic in terms of yield.
In addition to the vegetable gardens I also want to work on the soil in what will become the fruit tree guilds. The same general principles will apply. Add organic matter, plant fairly densely in varying heights(stories) from tree, shrubs, herbs, and finally ground cover. Again, the purpose is to protect the soil through shading (slowing evaporation) and minimizing the effects of rain falling directly on the soil. The area around the trees will also be mulched with comfrey and nettles but I will also grow a bit of comfrey which can be chopped and dropped in place. I will also add Micorrhizal Fungi which will increase the reach of the small trees roots and even connect the root systems of the various elements of the guild allowing for more efficient transfer and uptake of nutrients. I will fertilize with the same homemade organic fertilizer and spray with a worm composting tea. I will add Humic Acid to the tea which will combine minerals into organic compounds, making them more available to the trees and plants. It will supposedly also increase the water holding capacity of the soil and help increase root growth. I will also spray with EM which will essentially do the same thing. In the fall I will keep the soil covered with an overwintering crop and/or heavy mulch. Again, the soil and the guilds will take years to reach maturity but it will be fun to experiment and try to help speed up the process.