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
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.