Amending soil is different than fertilizing it — Part 1

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amending soil, field with burrows for planting

Depending on your locale, you may have already tilled your soil and, perhaps, planted some onions, potatoes or cold-weather plants in the ground. I live in Pennsylvania, where it’s not uncommon at all to experience all four seasons in a single 24-hour period. LOL We’ve had a few days where the temperatures have reached 70 degrees Fahrenheit and above already. (Of course, by early evening, it plummeted back down to the 30s.) At any rate, gardening season is just around the corner, and this is the time when many home gardeners and farmers are preparing their soil. I’ve been gardening for nearly 30 years but consider myself just a tad beyond a novice. A topic I’ve been learning more about in recent years has to do with understanding the difference between amending soil and fertilizing it.

You don’t have to have a degree in agricultural sciences in order to plant and nurture a garden. One thing I’ve discovered over the years, however, is that it never hurts to study and learn about various gardening topics, including non-toxic ways to manage pests, plant compatibility, tilling versus non-tilling options and all sorts of soil-related issues. As I mentioned in this post a while back, I try to choose a topic or issue to focus on each year so that I’m always learning ways to improve my garden and the lay the groundwork (no pun intended, lol) for an abundant harvest.

What does ‘amending soil’ mean?

amending soil, hand full of dirt

Amending soil has to do with adding materials to the earth in your garden to improve its physical and chemical properties. The soil is the foundation that will set forth your harvest. There are many types of soil, from red-clay dirt to rocky soil, sandy or silt. If we were raising our hands when our type of soil was listed, I would thrust both hands into the air for the second type: rocky soil. I’m pretty sure I could build a 3-story house from the rocks I can gather from my garden in a single season! When my kids were younger, we would spend hours filling buckets and wheelbarrows to haul the rocks out of the garden. In time, I realized that new rocks would push to the surface after we removed the old ones. Now, I just garden around them and use them to create borders!

Testing soil is a good first step to take

man's arms and hands shown planting seeds in soil

It’s helpful to learn about the type of soil you have and to test it so that you know if it’s lacking a certain nutrient. When you’re amending soil, you are helping to improve its texture, as well as boosting permeability, which affects the way water is absorbed and drained. For example, if you have sandy soil, adding decaying organic matter to it will help retain water that might otherwise wash away. If you have clay dirt, you have a real challenge on your hands! Amending soil for clay can help loosen it so that water, air and plant roots can make their way through.

There’s an entire world of microbial activity happening in your garden! Amending soil boosts this activity, which helps to create a healthy environment for crops to grow. If you garden in the same plot every year, the soil becomes depleted. Rotating crops helps correct this issue. Amending soil does, as well!

How is amending soil different from fertilizing it?

amending soil, rake in dirt

People sometimes use the terms “amending soil” and “fertilizing soil” as though they’re interchangeable, but they’re really not. As mentioned earlier, amending soil provides much needed nutrients to the earth in a garden. It also helps improve texture and permeability. Fertilizing a garden is more centrally focused on nutrition. When you fertilize your garden, you’re providing nutrients, such as potassium, nitrogen or phosphorus, that plants need in order to thrive. Gardening is all about finding balance. One of your crops might have a specific nutrient deficiency while another has excess. Don’t stress too much about it. Just do some research, make some adjustments and learn from season to season what appears to be working and what doesn’t.

To understand the difference between amendment and fertilization, think of it this way: Amending soil is about the health of your soil. Fertilization is about the health of your plants.

What are the best options for soil amendment?

amending soil, compost pile

Soil is basically a combination of minerals, air, water and organic matter. To help a vegetable garden thrive, there needs to be a good balance. The trick is to make sure your soil isn’t too heavy or light and isn’t too high in acid or alkaline. That said, this is all in relation to the types of crops you’re growing. For instance, plants such as blueberries or certain types of flowers grow best in soil that is more acidic. The most common form of organic matter gardeners use for amending soil is compost.

You can find many online resources and tutorials on how to make compost. A key factor here is to let your compost age before you apply it to your soil. In all things gardening, you’ll find that you can customize the way you do things.  Gardening styles range from a simplistic, very basic form to complex, intense and all-out professional-level endeavors. (I happen to be happily existing at the first end of the spectrum.  I keep it basic and typically grow enough food to keep my family full and satisfied throughout the growing season!)

For basic compost, it can be as easy as saving your kitchen scraps in a small pail. If you want to go larger, you can make a compost bin out of  storage tote with a lid. You can also use a large garbage can on wheels. You’ll need to drill holes for aeration in both of these items. Take some time to watch a few videos or read about the topic, then decide what works best for you.

Mulching can also help amend your soil

Wheelbarrow full of mulch

Mulch is another type of organic matter you can use for amending soil. A word of caution: It is recommended to avoid mulching pressure-treated wood of any kind! You can make an inexpensive mulch with leaves and dried grass. There are several other types of organic matter to use for soil amendment. This includes biochar and cover crops, neither of which I’ve ever personally used but want to learn more about.

When you plant a cover crop (such as clover or buckwheat) the idea is that you don’t harvest the crop for consumption. Instead, you allow it to remain in the garden, then till it back into the soil to provide the earth with vital nutrients. Biochar, on the other hand, is charred wood. The ancient Mayans and Incas reportedly used this to amend their soil. I’ve read that it worked so well that such soil remains viable to this day!

Check back tomorrow for Part 2 of this amending soil series!

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