Without the soil that plants grow in we are all as good as nothing. When we eat plants we are eating energy, that energy which they have pulled from the sun in ways that we can describe scientifically but not even sort of replicate or truly understand. In the end when we eat meat we are eating the energy that our cows (or pigs, chickens, ducks, goats, dogs, deer, people) have eaten from plants that the plants have taken from the sun. We need plants to eat the sun so that we may eat the sun through them is where I’m going. It’s where the energy is.
Yet and still, without the soil, plants forget how to eat the sun. There are exceptions to this if you are growing in our future ways where soil is null and our rudimentary understanding of the complex inner workings and sharings intrinsic to soil nutrient magicks are put to work, or you know, hydroponics, but I will not speak of these exceptions now. Let’s talk of the world of soil, the world where we always start and will always end up if we do not completely ravage this most potent example of nature’s recycling prowess. More specifically, let’s talk of how to keep soil happy, in order that we may keep plants happy.
If you are in an urban space, chances are good that whatever soil you’ve been given, on whatever tiny or large plot of land you have, is compacted, contaminated and or too sandy to work any nutrient and water containing magicks. Additionally, here in New Orleans we’re basically at sea level, and raised beds keep plant roots from drowning in days and weeks of the perpetual moisture that is our blessed curse.
Raised beds call for fresh and new soil. Mostly the whole point of a raised bed is for fresh and new soil. In order to keep things simple and relatively cheap, five parts cheap topsoil to one part bagged compost is a great way to get a raised bed started. Your raised bed only needs to be about a foot deep as most vegetable roots don’t go deeper than eight inches, excluding a few gigantic root vegetables and some edible grasses. Lay your bed with topsoil on the bottom, top dress it with the compost. If you have time, you can make your own compost, or compost a bunch of yard waste in your raised bed and cover it with cardboard and wait very patiently, but do this only if you have time, six months or more. It is a rare thing to find one who wants to grow vegetables and has that kind of patience in an urban kind of place, but perhaps you are the one. Also, five parts topsoil to one part compost will not give you perfect soil. You can spend a lot more money if you want something better. Buy some Foxfarm potting soil, mix some perlite in there, look up Mel’s mix, throw some creepy miracle gro soil in there, do any or all of this if you’re a $60 tomato type of person. I am not.
For the sake of the soil, your raised bed does serve a further purpose. It keeps the dirt free from your meddling feet. About the worst thing you can do to your soil is compact it. Pathways for water, air, and microorganisms are ruined. Important mycorhizzal fungi are no longer able to create nutrient sharing fungal highways between plants, worms die, everything dies. Do not step on your soil, ever. Don’t put any of your human weight on the soil. Don’t even look at it unless you have to, and definitely don’t take any pictures, because a piece of your soil’s soul will be lost each time you do. Mostly just don’t step on it though, okay?
Your first round of plants will probably be fairly content with that fresh bed of topsoil and compost, and you’ll probably feel great about all the things you’ve made happen with my fantastic advice. It won’t last. In nature, plants are always dying and feeding their death back into the soil, perpetuating a cycle of nutrients that enables nearly indefinite growth. When something comes along and eats plants for nutrients, the soil in which those plants reside lose some nutrients. Guess what? You get them, you lucky such and such! Your soil suffers for your stomach’s sake however, and nutrients must be replenished.
In the deep south we have the privilege of being able to grow food year around, and it is hard to resist the temptation to do exactly that. As a result, as southern gardeners we leech nutrients out of our soils faster than more rational folk in more temperate climates tend to, and we never give our soil a chance to replenish itself on its own. Additionally, it rains a lot here, and while rain is quite nice for plants, it does take nutrients away from the soil when it is long and constant. So we must replenish. If you are responsible and exceptionally environmentally savvy, you keep your own compost pile. That compost is all you need to keep your garden happy more or less forever. The thing is, you probably don’t have enough. Ideally, you want to be adding a foot of decomposed organic matter to your beds twice a year, once before your Spring planting and once before your Fall planting. If you have enough compost for that, good on you. If not, start stealing bagged up leaves from people’s front yards. If you don’t have that kind of leisure time, I’m afraid you’re going to have to start spending. You can buy those aforementioned bags of compost as an alternative to making your own, but frankly those bags are not nearly as potent as homegrown compost, which has a deep and magical ecosystem already in place which is super stoked to be a part of your garden proper. If you use bagged compost, again I’d recommend a foot twice a year, but you should also invest in some bone meal or other well rounded organic granular fertilizer to apply to your soil every couple months. On top of all that, you probably want to buy some organic liquid fertilizer to douse your dirt with every few weeks. This is what it will take to make your soil thrive eternally if you want to grow in it all the time. That or your own compost, which is free if you don’t value your labor.
You can also grow legumes hard every summer and turn them into the soil before they give you any edible product, but if you want to depend on this as your sole means of keeping your soil healthy, you will need to grow a lot of beans.
Snow Peas! Which are Legumes!
The only other serious big deal when it comes to keeping your soil happy enough to keep your plants happy is crop rotation. Basically, don’t plant the same thing in the same place twice in a row. More specifically, wait a couple of years to plant the same thing in the same place. Different plants have different wants and needs in terms of nutrition, and their manner of getting those nutrients can be subtly different. There are plenty of diseases and malicious little microorganisms that will accumulate around a plant species they desire. If that plant disappears for awhile, so too will the little monsters that want to devour it.
In conclusion, a list!
Ian writes these. Fearlessly.