As spring approaches and the weather warms, it signals the beginning of the planting season. To prepare for planting, the first thing we have to prepare is our soil.
Before you head out and grab your sod cutter to make room for a new veggie garden adventure, let’s take a minute to talk about dirt and soil.
Soil is the most important element to consider after choosing what to grow in your garden. It acts as a medium for water and nutrients, it gives your plants a home and a strong anchor to grow in, and it provides protection from extremes during the growing season.
Dirt versus Soil, the Skinny
What makes dirt different from soil? Let’s begin here: dirt is not alive, it’s dead, and it offers little that your plants can use to grow.
Dirt may have some of the same properties as soil, but unlike humus (or topsoil), it lacks minerals, nutrients, and living organisms. It’s unable to be compacted and doesn’t provide an environment conducive to growing plants.
Soil is a mixture of many things, including sand, silt, organic matter, minerals, and living organisms. Soil varies from place to place depending on five factors: topography, climate, organisms, time, and the underlying rocks in the area. In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) divides the country into 11 planting zones, each with its own unique growing conditions and requirements—you can find your zone using the USDA’s plant hardiness zone map.
In gardening and farming, soil functions to recycle raw materials—composting leaves, kitchen scraps, and other organic waste—and it’s the first step in filtering water. Healthy soil provides a living environment for organisms that work to break down matter, and healthy soil has all the components needed for plant growth.
Soil, the Silent Partner of Gardeners Everywhere
What does soil actually do for plants? A lot, it turns out.
Plants need soil to grab onto to grow, and they need a strong root system to provide a base for whatever you hope to grow. Without this stable foundation, many plants would simply fall over at some point in their growth cycles.
Sunflowers can grow more than five feet tall, and corn can grow to more than seven feet. It takes a strong network of roots in healthy soil to give these plants the foundation to grow that tall.
Soil provides a place for accumulated water, nutrients, and oxygen, which can all be absorbed by a plant’s roots and utilized for growth.
Soil also acts as a buffer against temperature changes, providing some protection so plants don’t suffer as much during hot or cold spells.
Why and How to Test Your Soil
You’ll want to test your soil before you begin your gardening season. It’s essential to make sure your soil has the right combination of nutrients, minerals, and organic matter for healthy, nutritive plants and veggies to be grown.
Many home improvement stores, nurseries, and online retailers carry soil testing kits, and they can give you all kinds of information. It’s best to test your soil for pH balance and nutrients before deciding whether, and with what, you should supplement.
What to Do After Testing Your Soil
Once you’ve tested your soil, you can then begin supplementing with various additives to improve it for planting. You can add compost or manure to increase organic matter content, and you can add lime or other mineral fertilizers to improve soil quality.
The most basic soil supplements are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K), commonly referred to as NPK. These can be readily purchased at any home improvement store and incorporated into your garden.
There are further things you can do to improve your soil quality over time. Rotating your crops, adding compost, fertilizing, and using other methods will all be of benefit in the long run, which will improve your health as well, since the foods you grow will be healthier for you and your family.