November 16, 2019

My friend, Dave, who farms my back forty tells me that it takes 10 years to make one inch of topsoil.  He’s a third-generation farmer and knows more about soil than any scientist.

Dave practices crop rotation, starting with corn, then soybeans, followed by wheat.  After the wheat harvest, he sows clover, a good cover crop.  As soon as the combine harvests the corn kernels another machine chops up the remaining stubble leaving it on the soil through winter.  Dave rarely plows the soil, opting instead to till the surface.  And periodically he adds nitrogen fertilizer to supplement the organic matter that slowly accumulates.

Us city folk could learn a thing or two from good farmers.  If you have a grassed area that you’d like to turn into a flower or veggie garden, simply peeling off the sod and planting new plants might be disappointing.  Hungry grass will often leave the soil compacted and depleted of nutrients.

If you have the time (months) consider lasagne gardening which involves putting down cardboard over the green grass.  Next put down a 2-inch layer of green organic matter, followed by 2 inches of topsoil or tripl e mix.  In a few months it can all be tuned under and added to your existing soil.

Adding compost or organic matter is your ticket to improving soil.  A mixture of kitchen scraps, well rotted manure, triple mix, leaves, grass clippings and peat moss added to your existing soil will do wonders to improve soil’s texture and raise nutrient levels.

Once you’ve added compost, soil will soon be teeming with microbial activity.  Worms will take notice and will tunnel deep into the soil, improving its texture.

If you have even a short window of opportunity, consider planting a cover crop or green manure.  Any quick growing seed such as beans, radish, clover or micro greens would work just fine, adding valuable nutrients while improving soil structure.

The best way to ensure your soil has the right amount of the right nutrients, I recommend testing the soil.  Do-it-yourself soil test kits will help you test pH and nitrogen, but for a comprehensive test, send off a soil sample to your nearest soil lab.  I use Agri-food Laboratories in Guelph.  In a week or two they will send you a detailed analysis along with recommendations to adjust the soil if recommended.

Add fertilizer or lime if needed.  It always takes a few years for a new garden to reach its potential and adding specially formulated granular fertilizer will help get you there.  Keep in mind that 1 pound of granular fertilizer is equivalent to more than 10 pounds of organic compost.

Don’t forget the mulch.  A two to three-inch layer of organic mulch will keep worms happy, keep weeds at bay, and will keep moisture in the soil.  if you have existing trees and shrubs, a layer of mulch over the root zone will protect the roots from damage by mower, foot traffic and the garden hoe.