Harvey Ussery wrote an article for Mother Earth News titled “8 Steps for How to Make Better Garden Soil” where he describes, in-depth, the process of improving your soil through low-tillage avenues. This is such great content that I wanted to add some extra commentary for newbie gardeners to help you get the most out of your garden soil.

1.Add Manures for Nitrogen.

Nitrogen is the number one chemical required for plant growth and if devoid from your garden soil your plants will continually struggle. Animal manures are a great source of nitrogen and if you can source them easily, either through your own animals or via livestock farms, they can radically improve your soil and keep your fertilising costs to a minimum.

However, there is always a balance between introducing any fertilisers into your soil because of problems with leeching or contamination of food sources. Ussery recommends a book by Joseph Jenkins: The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure (aff.) that may even give you some insight as to how to utilise your own families manure for your garden purposes.

2. Try composting.

As they say, there is nothing new under the sun. Here are some posts I’ve written over the years that may help you get started on this important garden practice;

Compost is the engine room of any garden soil amending program and contains the complete circle of life in your garden.

3. Tap chicken power to mix organic materials into the soil.

I love this idea of getting natural workers to do the job for you. I once saw a gardener set up a garden shed on some fairly unarable soil and introduce thousands of earthworms into the shed. On the outside he encouraged chickens to scratch the surrounding surface in search of the earthworms. In effect, he had two sets of workers; the first (earthworms) working the soil from beneath and the second (chickens) working the soil from on top. Within a few weeks the soil had completely changed having been worked over by both but also by being fertilised with worm castings and chicken manure.

Ussery’s idea here is a good one by encouraging the chickens to forage through piles of organic matter and, in the process, mix it into the top layers of the soil.

4.”Mine” soil nutrients with deep rooted plants.

Some of our least loved plants, including “weeds”, often have a usefulness that we as gardeners don’t often appreciate. These plants, such as the examples used by Ussery (comfrey, nettles and yellow dock), are able to bring nutrients to the uppermost soil from deep beneath. Plus they add back nitrogen and offer great benefits by being used in compost – especially the comfrey.

Deep-rooted weeds are usually disliked by us because of the mass of seed heads they produce which is why we’re so tempted to rip them out. However, these seed heads can easily be removed from these weeds before they flower and the weed can continue growing and ‘mining’ nutrients for your more preferred plants.

5. Plant cover crops.

Cover crops are the plant kingdom’s alternative to using manures so heavily. Growing legume crops allows the soil to take in the nitrogen that these produce but also benefir from the organic matter of roots and foliage as they break down.

The best time to plant a cover crop is when your garden bed is lying fallow – usually in the winter months. Broadcast some seeds over the soil and rake in before watering. It will take some weeks, depending on which cover crop you chose, before they can then be dug back into the soil. You will want to do this before they begin to flower and set seed as you don’t want these crops to continue growing once your plants have been bedded in.

6. Cover the soil with mulch.

Ussery holds tight to the no-tillage philosophy of gardening which makes a lot of common sense. Me, I prefer a low-tillage strategy instead because I believe the soil benefits from being aerated occasionally to reduce compaction and to increase the depth of fertile topsoil. Having said that, I’m also an advocate of mulching your soil and not allowing bare spots.

Mulch is like an organic blanket for your garden beds and provides decomposting material to increase soil activity but also shields the beds against erosion and weeds.

7. Use permanent beds and paths.

This is wise advice because it deals with the problem of soil compaction. If your soil is often tread underfoot it will result in any air being removed and drainage becoming problematic. Therefore it’s much better to use permanent beds than to continually change them and increase this risk.

Likewise, paths should follow a similar line as well. Keeping your access to a minimum and treading in places where plants don’t grow is always the best way to work.

8. Try low-tech tillage.

While being the last point, this is truly Ussery’s piece d’resistance and his philosophy speaks loudest through this point. He balks at using power tillers and prefers to use organic alternatives – and he offers many alternatives to choose from – instead.

His list consists of using these options;

  • Chickens
  • Potatoes
  • Cover crops
  • Mulch
  • Compost

The article is well thought out and offers a heap of alternative ideas to many that are expressed within gardening magazines and the general media. I hope it helps you with making your garden soil healthy.