An artist would never paint on a dry, unprimed canvas, nor a baker put bread into a cold oven, but so often we simply dig a hole in the ground, plunk an unsuspecting plant down in the middle of it, bury it, and then are disappointed and wonder why it doesn’t do what we think it should. Preparation prior to planting is one of the most crucial, but most neglected steps in gardening.
It first helps to understand some terminology; Dirt is what one finds in the corners of one’s home, vaccuums away, and tosses in the trash. Soil is a mixture of organic and inorganic matter, ideally suited (more often than not) to support plants, bacteria, fungi, invertebrates, and a myriad of other life forms. Soil itself is not alive, but the soil/garden environment is a living, changing organism all its own.
The amount of activity happening beneath our feet is enough to stagger the mind. Ordinary garden soil, or loam, will generally be composed of inorganic materials – tinybits of many different types of finely ground stone, clay, or sand. Good for holding water and supporting the basic needs of plants (green side goes up, roots go down!), but typically lacking in the proper nutrients for healthy plant growth. This is where the organic component of soil becomes very, very important.
Leaves, twigs, bark, animals long dead, and leavings from those still living add Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium, and other important nutrients and compounds to our soils. Earthworms, nematodes, and a host of bacteria and fungi feast on this organic matter, breaking it down and changing it into forms our beloved plants can use to grow strong and healthy.
The easiest and most beneficial step a gardener can take to grow a healthier plant is to add some sort of compost, be it well-aged cow manure, kitchen compost (don’t add meat products to this!!), or a commercially available seafood-blended compost mix as a top-dressing to an existing garden bed. Working this already aged, broken down material into the top several inches of soil distributes valuable nutrients, loosens bulky soil clods, and helps with both drainage and water holding.
A healthy garden is a living garden! The presence of earthworms, bugs, and other small creatures means everything is working. Too often we get absorbed in trying to create the “perfect garden” and put unnecessary chemicals and additives into the soil that do more harm than good. Plants grown with proper soil nutrition are healthier, stronger, and will need less care in the long run because they have been treated with the best nature has to offer them – good dirt.