Organic farming requires healthy soils to provide your plants with all the adequate nutrients they need to grow healthy, be free of disease, and produce a bountiful harvest. Aside from just nutrients, your soil must also contain the thriving biology of microorganisms and insects that play important roles in your soil’s nutrient cycle and plant’s defense system.
To properly prepare your soil when you start with farming, you will have to make sure it’s well aerated, amended, and continually managed to improve its fertility. Continue reading (and watching some fascinating videos below) to learn how to prepare soil for organic farming!
What You'll Learn Today
- Assessing The Healthy Of Your Soil
- Steps To Preparing Your Soil
- Managing Your Soil For Long Term Health
- Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the most important aspect of an organic garden?
- When is the best time to start planning an organic garden?
- Is organic gardening harder than “traditional” gardening?
- Is most natural soil suitable for organic gardening?
- How can you add nutrients to garden soil organically?
- What can organic gardeners do to keep insect (and other) garden pests under control?
- What are the some of the techniques of IPM?
- How can organic gardeners control weeds in the garden?
Assessing The Healthy Of Your Soil
Before you do anything to your soil it is best to assess what exactly you’re working with. In most cases, you can do the assessment yourself in the field through careful observation or by using one of the over-the-counter test kits.
Alternatively, you can get a professionally conducted soil test. Large plots of land may require multiple tests in diverse locations.
A. Laboratory Testing
If you plan to go into market production it might be best to conduct a proper laboratory test. This will not only tell you what nutrients are lacking but also could indicate the presence of agrochemicals that could interfere with organic certification.
Information Obtained From Laboratory Testing:
- Macronutrients: nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K)
- Secondary nutrients like sulfur, calcium, and magnesium.
- Micronutrients like manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum, and Iron
- Presence of Agrochemicals
- Organic Matter Percentage
B. Field Assessment
In your field assessment, you will want to analyze for compaction, soil texture, and any indicators provided by vegetation. Soil texture refers to the quantities of sand, silt, or clay in your soil which will affect your management decisions.
Vegetation indicators like wetland species or xeric species (adapted to dry conditions) will tell you a lot of what’s going on in your soil. Dark soils rich in organic matter are typically a sign that you’ve got good soil!
Steps To Preparing Your Soil
In most cases, you will want to follow these steps in this order to ensure the best results for your soil.
1. Dealing With Weeds And Rocks
Weeds can become the most labor-intensive part of managing your farmland organically, so taking the right steps to ensure they don’t proliferate is important.
Ideally, remove weeds before they go to seed, most should be removed with roots.
Weeds can be composted or fed to farm animals. You may choose to leave some weeds like clovers and other small ground covers that have minimal impact on your crops.
Small rocks or pebbles in the soil can also be an issue, particularly for planting seeds or container gardening. You can remove them using various methods.
Compaction in your soil can be extremely detrimental to your plant’s health. It not only affects the water absorption and retention but also greatly reduces air space within the soil.
To treat compactions you will have to loosen the soil with a shovel or other machinery.
Double Dig Method
The Double Dig Method is a simple way to loosen the soil with the use of a shovel.
- Remove the top layer of soil from your row or bed one shovel head deep. Place soil to the side.
- Loosen soil that lays beneath your excavated area with a shovel, pick, or fork.
- Refill with soil that was already excavated. Alternatively, if you’re planning neighboring rows you can directly place the topsoil of the next row into your originally excavated space.
- Avoid stepping on or compacting your newly loosened soil. With proper management, double-digging will only have to be done once.
3. Consider Your Climate
When preparing your beds you should also consider your climate. Arid climates should have rows/beds that are at ground level while climates with heavy rain should have raised planting areas to promote drainage.
4. Amending Your Soils
Amendments are important to ensure your plants have all the nutrients they need to grow healthy and productive. They should be mixed directly into the top-soil once it has been properly loosened.
Getting yourself high-quality compost is important to establishing healthy soil. Find compost that is dark, homogenous, and composed of fully decomposed materials.
Avoid anything with large chunks of undecomposed materials or compost with unpleasant odors. Adding 2-4” of compost is a good start but use as much as you can get your hands on.
What is biochar? Biochar is one of the most powerful organic soil amendments available and serves countless benefits to your soil. You can find it in most garden centers or learn to make it yourself.
Make sure you properly activate your biochar because charcoal alone may reduce the fertility of your soil! One of the best things about biochar is that it can last in your soil for thousands of years!
Benefits provided by Biochar:
- Nutrient Retention
- Water Retention
- Habitat for Beneficial Microorganisms
- Increased Drainage
- Improved Aeration
- pH Buffer
- Makes Harmful Contaminants Inert
C. Worm Castings
Worm Castings are generally more expensive than compost but are a more concentrated and powerful amendment. They are packed full of beneficial microorganisms and stimulate the germination of seeds!
D. Compost Tea
Compost Tea is more of a microbial inoculate than a direct nutrient source. It can be sprayed directly into your soil when preparing your bed to stimulate biological activity and ensure the establishment of beneficial microbes.
There are countless recipes available to choose from but you can also just purchase it in many garden centers.
E. pH Neutralization
Soils that are too low or too high in pH can be detrimental to the growth of plants. This is largely because soils with unfavorable pH reduce your plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the soul.
This is particularly important in rainy or tropical climates where soils are naturally acidic. There are a variety of options for neutralizing your soil’s pH.
pH Neutralizing Amendments:
- Pulverized Limestone
- Iron Sulfate
- Aluminum Sulfate
- Ash (not practical for highly acidic soils)
- Sulfur (for Alkaline Souls)
5. Mulching Your Soil
Once your soil has been properly loosened and amended it’s recommended to add a layer of mulch.
You will typically want to use something woody or slow to decompose to ensure it lasts you throughout the season. Avoid mulch that may contain the seeds of unfavorable weeds!
Benefits Of Mulch:
- Reduces Evaporation
- Protects Topsoil From UV Rays
- Feeds Soil Food Web
- Protects Soil from Erosion
- Promotes Beneficial Fungi
- Reduces Growth of Weeds
6. Cover Crops
Cover Crops are an excellent option for highly deteriorated soils or for individuals that don’t have the resources to properly amend their soil.
These are typically quick growing and nitrogen fixing crops that are incorporated into the soil to improve nutrients content and add organic matter.
Some cover crops can be implemented along with your crop of value while others are planted independently.
Managing Your Soil For Long Term Health
Once your soil has been prepared for planting it’s important to continue managing it in a way that continues enhancing its fertility.
Improper management practices can greatly reduce the health of your soil.
Best Management Practices
- Avoid Compacting Your Soil
- Don’t Use Synthetic Fertilizers or Other Agrochemicals
- Don’t Till or Disturb the Soil
- Add Compost Regularly as a Top Dressing
- Add more Mulch once the previous addition has decomposed.
- Regularly Remove Unfavorable Weeds
- Practice Crop Rotation
Regenerative Soil Management
The most beautiful thing about organic soil management is that your soil can become more and more fertile after every season! This will not only mean your crops are healthier but you’ll also need less work and resources as time goes on.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the most important aspect of an organic garden?
The soil is arguably the most important consideration in organic gardening. You’ll want to build well draining soil structure that consists of the right amounts of silt, sand, clay and compost amendments. Good, healthy soil that is free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer forms a solid base for a sustainable organic garden.
When is the best time to start planning an organic garden?
If you want to get a good start on your organic garden in the coming spring, you can begin planning and dreaming in the dead of winter. Sketch out a plan and do your studying during this time. Early in the springtime, begin growing seedlings indoors and take steps to prepare your garden soil (if your ground isn’t frozen).
Is organic gardening harder than “traditional” gardening?
It may take longer to get established with organic gardening because you need to build up your soil with organic matter and give it time to work. You need to establish a healthy population of beneficial insects, birds and other natural helpers. If your soil has been treated with chemical products in the past, it may take a while to work past them and rejuvenate the soil. Once you have accomplished all of these steps, organic gardening is actually easier than “traditional” gardening because it involves working with the land rather than against it.
Is most natural soil suitable for organic gardening?
Unfortunately, most backyard soil is off-balance for organic gardening. Your goal should be to build a soil composition that is half solid particles and half pore space to allow for good circulation of air and water. Good organic garden soil has a loose, crumbly structure that allows plant roots to grow easily. The best way to achieve this is to work plenty of organic compost into the soil.
How can you add nutrients to garden soil organically?
Another very important aspect of good soil building is soil fertility. The soil’s pH level, amount of organic matter and overall texture all influence the amount of nutrients your soil contains and is able to deliver to plants. The best pH level for garden soil is6.2 to 6.8. Keep track of your soil pH level with regular testing. Incorporate organic matter early in the spring and continue to add organic matter with regular mulching throughout the growing season.
What can organic gardeners do to keep insect (and other) garden pests under control?
With organic gardening, you will want to create a solid integrated pest management (IPM) plan. This sort of pest management system involves partnering with beneficial insects and other fauna, exercising vigilance in watching out for garden pests, using natural control methods whenever possible and making very limited use of specific chemical remedies.
What are the some of the techniques of IPM?
One of the main things to remember when establishing an IPM plan is that you must use the least environmentally harmful products and methods before trying any toxic methods. This means planning effectively and doing everything you can to prevent pest predation. In addition to keeping an eye out for pests and engaging the assistance of predator insects, birds, lizards, etc., you should also plant types of crops that resist pests. When you plan your garden, remember to rotate your crops annually so that pests don’t have a chance to get established. Use row covers to keep pests off plants. Clean all of your equipment between uses to prevent spreading pests and diseases from plant to plant. Keep a clean garden and keep weeds down so that pests don’t have places to hide and breed.
How can organic gardeners control weeds in the garden?
Remember that weeds like to grow in poor, bare ground, so keeping your soil rich and well-amended will help discourage weeds. A thick layer of organic mulch will also discourage weed growth while helping retain moisture. Another bonus of mulch is that it breaks down gradually and adds nutrients to the soil in a slow and steady manner. Growing a cover crop and/or tall plants that shade the soil will also discourage weed growth. When weeds do appear, pull them or use a weed flamer to make short work of them.