What’s the secret to raising healthy, carefree vegetables and flowers? Great soil. Upon first glance, a garden may appear to be the perfect picture of health. However, further examination may reveal that the garden isn’t all that it seems, and perhaps that healthy facade is artificially manufactured. Chemical fertilizers and an abundance of water may temporarily boost a garden’s appearance, but gardens need more than a rapid fix to maintain long-term health.
How can you tell if your soil has what plants need? By merely carrying out a soil test! When you send a soil sample to a lab, you’ll surely get a detailed analysis of soil nutrients and find out about deficiencies. That’s valuable information but can sometimes cost some bucks. The good news is that you can test your soil using quite simple methods, which cost nothing! And the only items you need are a few basic tools commonly found around the house.
You can perform these hands-on experiments as soon as the ground is thawed enough to sink in a spade. Knowing more about your particular corner of the earth only takes a few minutes but gives you insights that set the stage for your most bountiful harvest. We recommend to thoroughly look over the following during the active growing weeks in spring, but you can test for soil structure and tilth, compaction, and plant residue year-round. Check various locations in the garden for the broadest picture possible. The more details you have, the more accurate and reliable the results.
#1. Yucky Earthworms
While earthworms can creep the hell out of some people, did you know that their presence in your garden and surrounding soil indicates a healthy garden? Yes, this can sound crazy, but those yucky earthworms are actually essential to healthy plants thanks to their abilities to aerate the soil (by channeling through it). These channels enable rain to soak into the ground and air to reach roots. Earthworms, through their castings, also add essential nutrients to the soil. Well, to know if you’re soil is really healthy, you should buckle up for some serious worm hunting! (Ew, right?).
When the soil is not too dry or wet, examine the soil surface for earthworm castings and burrows. Then dig out 6 inches of soil and count the number of earthworms squirming on the shovel. Three worms are good; five are better. The absence of worms means the land does not have enough of the organic matter they feed on. An exception: If you live in the Southwest, don’t waste your time looking even if the soil displays other signs of good quality. Earthworm activity is less likely in the desert as they don’t like hot earth.
#2. Pretty Flowers
Indeed, there are low-maintenance plants that do not produce flowers, but relying only on these plants in your garden can prove troublesome over the long haul. Bees, birds, and butterflies are attracted to sweet, flowering plants. These animals and insects are essential to pollination, and without them, the garden cannot procreate. A thriving garden has a mix of plants, including some flowering varieties that will keep birds, butterflies, and bees returning again and again.
#3. Plant Residue
The presence of stubble or leftover plant particles from previous plantings helps the soil retain moisture and suppress weeds. This material also can prevent erosion. It’s good to have some residual plant matter in your land. If the soil is too “clean,” it may not be as healthy as you think.
If you’ve grown a cover crop, dig down 6 inches one month after turning it into the soil and then look for plant matter. The range of organic material is essential to notice here. The presence of recognizable plant parts, as well as plant fibers and darkly colored humus, indicates an ideal decomposition rate.
#4. Foliage Color and Growth
A plant leaf can tell a lot about the health of a plant. Shriveled or pale leaves could be indicative of a problem. If the plant looks sickly, the soil might need to be modified, or the problem may lie inside of the plant itself. Take a clipping of a poorly growing plant and place it in a glass of water.
If the water becomes cloudy or milky, there may be a bacterial problem. If the water remains clear, the plant may have a virus. The presence of fuzz or hairs growing on leaves could indicate the presence of a fungus.
#5. Water Infiltration
Take a glass of water and pour it onto the soil of the garden. If it takes five seconds or less for the land to absorb the water, then that soil is probably doing well. Good infiltration gets water to plants where they need it (at their roots), prevents runoff and erosion, and lets air move more efficiently into soil pores. However, soil that can’t soak up that water may be having problems, or there may be problems on the horizon. Those problems will likely manifest themselves when the temperatures begin to rise.
If contaminants are identified only in some regions of your garden, one option is to simply avoid gardening in those areas and plant grass or ornamental species that will not be eaten. When low levels of contamination are detected, deep tillage and mixing large amounts of compost into the soil is necessary to dilute it. Fruits and seeds don’t accumulate heavy metals as readily, so vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, tomatoes along with fruit trees and berry bushes, are less of a risk.