Whether you run a 30,00-acre ranch, have a modest garden plot in your backyard, or simply love a few flowers by your front door, one thing bonds all these endeavors together: our soil.
Soil is earth’s living skin — crucial to all living organisms. Under the surface, billions of microbes are working hard to protect the soil structure and its chemistry. Without these living things, growing food in soil would not be possible. As stewards of the earth, we can do our part to help by providing healthy soil conditions for our microbe friends, so all can thrive.
With spring arriving, it’s time to start amending soil to get ready to plant various vegetables and flowers. Whether your growing operation is big or small, healthy soil is a crucial part of the process. As gardeners, our goal is to increase soil organic material and reduce disturbance to grow healthy, deep-rooted plants. Soil organic material refers to any material originating from a living organism (plants and animals) that returns to the soil and is decomposed.
The most common way to add organic material to the garden is compost. Compost is not only a great source of nutrients and organic matter, but a great way to use up veggie scraps, yard clippings and leaf piles. If you have started your own compost, way to go! If not, no worries, the local landfill often has compost available. The compost is relatively inexpensive, just make sure to get the non-biosolid material if using it on edible plants. If a garden is small enough, one can always purchase bags of compost at a local nursery.
How much compost used will depend on the current state of your soil, as well as which plants you’re intending to grow. If your soil’s still very clay-heavy, as much of our Wyoming soil is at first, adding more organic material will help break up that dense clay to allow for better moisture and nutrient control. It will also give your roots an easier time spreading down and out and will make room for microbes to better perform their duties like decomposition and nutrient recycling. For already established gardens, one rule-of-thumb suggests applying 1.5 to 3 inches of well-finished compost to your garden each year. Compost should be applied in the fall or spring, as least one month before planting.
Another extremely effective way to increase your soil organic matter is to plant cover crops. Sowing a cover crop will provide nutrients to your soil that your plants may have depleted over the growing season while also soaking up excess nutrients like nitrogen. In addition, it will protect your bare soil from erosion and help suppress weeds. Some examples of cover crops include alfalfa, winter wheat and forage radish (a particularly good one for breaking up heavy soil without having to till.) There are dozens more to choose from, and once you understand the needs of particular areas, you can find a cover crop that’s right for you. They can be seeded in fall, as long as you give them enough time to grow before a killing frost, as well as in fallow areas in your garden or even in the rows between.
There are a few things to avoid as gardeners, too, to protect soil. Tillage exposes soil organic matter, making it deteriorate at a faster rate. It also can reduce worm population and helpful fungi as well as damaging the microbe population, which will damage soil structure. While sometimes tilling is very helpful, especially in the beginning stages of building a garden, it is only necessary to work compost and other material into the top few inches of our soil. This is easily done using a garden fork, which keeps the till depth appropriately shallow.
Another thing to avoid is bare soil, since this promotes erosion and weeds. Mulching bare soil is a great solution. Materials like hay, straw, woodchips and cardboard will reduce your weeds, conserve water and protect your soil.
The final soil foe is the usage of certain chemicals, even on nonedible plants. They can damage soil, killing helpful microbes, and can stay in there for a long time. It’s important to be aware of what is used on lawns and gardens, and if you are unsure, it’s always a good idea to ask. A visit to a local nursery will help answer questions, as will a call to the Sheridan County Extension office at 307-672-2980.
More information on amending, building and maintaining soil is available at the Sheridan County Fulmer Public Library. The facility has a lot of great material on the subject. You may always reach out to one of the many master gardeners in the community for advice. Happy planting!