There is an art of caring for soil or caring for the land. Understanding how soil functions and what you can do to make soil work for you are important aspects of increasing your food security and growing gardens and crops that will sustain you without depleting the land.

Natural soil present in my yard — When is it okay to use? When should I purchase soil?
If the soil is free of toxins, then it is okay to use. However, if the soil is not in the correct structural format for your plants, you will need to amend it or buy soil. The structural format of soil includes clay soils, sandy soils, and loams.

What are the different types of soil available?
Topsoil is the most common form of soil, including compost soil, rich in organic matter.

Peat moss is generally a soil additive or amendment.
Coconut coir is a fibrous soil amendment that helps add air to the soil and allows the soil to drain.

Should I use different soil to start seeds indoors? What works best and why?
Seed starting soil is usually lower in NPK in the range of 3-3-3 rather than 10-10-10. Soil should be airy and hold water but not soggy. Seeds, once they start to germinate, should remain moist but never wet.

To make your own seed starting soil, mix #1 perlite in a 2:1 ratio with peat moss, plus an equal amount of compost. So, 2 cups perlite, 1 cup peat moss, and three cups aged compost.

The perlite holds water and provides a lumpiness that allows air to circulate. The peat moss helps with rooting and will provide some nutrients to the seedlings. The compost is all about food for your plants and often will introduce beneficial soil organisms.

What is good soil for the whole garden, and why?
Good basic soil is topsoil, but topsoil and compost are a hard-to-beat combination. Pure, fresh compost can be too acidic.

What is compost, and why do you use it?
Compost is a raw material that is breaking down chemically, or that has broken down chemically. You add compost to a garden to increase soil nutrients, introduce beneficial bacteria, improve water drainage in clay soils, and increase water retention in sandy soils.

What is mulch, and why do you use it?
Mulch is a top covering added to the soil. It can be an organic material such as compost, bark, or even plant clippings, or small rock, such as lava stone or pea gravel.

Mulch is essential because it protects the top layer of soil. It will help keep heat in during the colder months and water in during the hotter months. It will also shield plant roots from heat.

What vegetables need special soil and why?
All plants need special soil because all plants have a zone of requirements where they thrive. Regular garden soil is special, but that may not be what you meant. To answer that question, you have to look at soil from many angles. How it drains — is it sandy, clay, loamy? What about pH? Is the soil too alkaloid or acidic?

It is essential to look up the physical requirements of each type of plant you want to grow when you garden.

Tip: Group plants with similar needs into the same beds or containers. An excellent place to start is with the type of soil you have. Then, make adjustments based on your soil and the needs of plants you want to grow.

Carrots, garlic, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and winter squash are a few vegetables that like the soil to be a little acidic. Aim for a pH of 6.0-7.0. Most vegetables need soil to be well-draining but can hold water; generally, this type of soil is loamy.

How deep should the soil be in the garden bed?
Generally speaking, you could make your garden beds about 18-inches deep. However, the depth of the garden bed depends on what you grow. Different plants have different root depths; for example, a potato plant needs about 2 feet or more soil. A head lettuce plant needs about eight inches to a foot of soil.

If you make all of your beds the same depth, you could be wasting soil. On the other hand, you can keep an area in your garden for vegetables with shallow roots and other areas for plants with deep roots.

What should be under the soil? Tarp, open ground, etc.?
It is nice to have weed cloth and about six inches of base rock under the soil if you are planting in raised beds. However, if you know your soil is organic and nothing toxic, you don't need anything under the soil. If you have garden issues with voles and gophers, a close mesh wire on the bottom can keep the rodents out of your garden beds.

Watering and Drainage?
Two of the most critical aspects of soil are how it holds water and it drains. Clay soils are poor draining soils, and loamy soil drains and also holds water. Sandy soil drains quickly and holds very little water. Most vegetables struggle if you plant them in clay soil. They are prone to root disease and will spend most of their energy trying to survive.

On the other hand, vegetables that live in sandy soil also struggle. They struggle to survive. Without constant watering, most will die. On the other hand, vegetables planted in loamy soil usually do well. They have water when they need it but not so much to cause disease.

Loamy soil is a mix of sand, clay, and organic matter. It often has a humus layer which helps to keep the soil moist but not wet. The organic matter helps to draw beneficial organisms to the soil, such as earthworms. In addition, the light and airy characteristics of loam help improve plant root health.

What does it mean to amend the soil? When should you do it?
Amend soil means to change the soil structure or pH. For example, if the soil has too much clay or sand, you will amend it to make it loamier. If the soil were too acidic, you would amend it to decrease the acidity. In short, you are changing the existing soil to better meet the needs of the vegetables you want to plant.

Always amend the soil before planting. If you do not have a fall or winter garden, you can amend the soil in early spring. If you are using manure, you may amend the soil in the fall to age before you plant. You can also plant a cover crop that will help to amend the soil for you.

How does fertilizer affect the soil and the need to amend soil or rotate crops?
Some plants are very heavy feeders, such as tomatoes. As a result, they will deplete the soil of usable nutrients, and the next crop you plant there may struggle. Fertilizers help to amend the soil nutrient level. They provide chemicals and minerals (food) that plants need to grow healthy roots, stems, and trunks and bear flowers and fruit. You rotate crops for two reasons: 1) to avoid common soil pests, such as carrot flies, and 2) to give the soil a chance to rejuvenate.

How do cover crops work?
Cover crops are plants, such as peas and legumes, that have a symbiotic relationship with soil biota. That relationship helps the plants and the soil organism to fix nitrogen. There is a lot of nitrogen in the soil, but most of it is not usable for plants. So the soil organisms help convert nitrogen into usable nitrogen. Cover crops help speed up that process. In their roots, they form nitrogen nodules that remain when you harvest the plants.

What are good cover crops?
Any plant in the pea or bean families makes good cover crops. Those include peas, beans, clover, and a host of other plants too.

When should I plant cover crops?
Many nitrogen-fixing plants are spring plants — they grow best after the last frost and before the summer heat. Plant them in the spots where heavy feeders were. Some legumes are cold-hardy. Fava beans are generally cold-hardy.

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