Taking Care of the Soil


Do you know it can take nature 500 to thousands of years to make one inch of soil?

When one thinks in those terms, people should feel very guilty dumping toxic materials or even simply discarding debris.

It takes a long time because much of soil starts out as rock. Weathering breaks down the rock over long periods of time. Even though rock is largely responsible for soil makeup, vegetation breakdown, climate weathering, topography and time are other factors in its makeup. In the northern US, we were lucky to have glaciers do the crushing and weathering for this area creating layers of topsoil.


Organic gardening is really all about taking care of the soil for healthy plants. Healthy soil is made up of around 50% porous spaces, 45% pulverized rock and 5% organic matter. Surprised?


This year I added compost and manure like every year, but I added peat moss to help with moisture retention. This also helps the heavy clay soil in my area. Drought has been happening for quite a few years running. I make my own compost, but purchase manure.

Compost is how we can best help with soil building. Our area is already facing a dry summer having lacked rain for weeks. As much compost as I add, it really is hard to keep up with what nature throws our way. Moisture is needed for healthy soil too, and plants need it to live.


Do You Think Soil Adds to the mass of Trees?


Do you think soil is the material making up plant mass and weight? Does the mass of a tree come from the soil? How about water. Water weighs a lot. Ironically, it is air, more specifically carbon dioxide that contributes most of the material making up plants. Trees are largely made out of air, 95% of carbon dioxide. Don’t believe me? See this funny video by Veritasium.


But to grow any plant, plants need more than carbon, oxygen and hydrogen. See my previous post on soil for more information.

Organic gardeners condition the soil, yet soil fertility is only one component of soil quality. Soils can be deficient in needed nutrients, or have poor soil structure. The pH may be too high, or too low. Unless you’ve been blessed with perfect soil, you’re going to have to work to make it great for plants. Gardening is a lot more work without great soil.


Many folks feed the plants directly. While chemical fertilizers accurately meet a plant’s needs, they are not the best for building soil health. In the last century, scientists determined how to make fertilizers from synthetic chemicals to give plants just what they need, but at what cost? There is no fundamental difference in nutritional quality between organic and inorganic fertilizers, at least not to the plants. To the soil and soil organisms it makes a big difference. One shovel turn and at least a dozen worms, robins love my garden. I let the little ones go. Robins hurried in for the buffet.


Soils treated only with synthetic chemical fertilizers eventually lose organic matter and the all-important living organisms that help to build a quality soil. They grow plants but do nothing to sustain the soil. Salts build up in the soil by repeatedly feeding plants with chemical fertilizer, and salts damage the living organisms. Soil that has good quality resists wind and water erosion and if erosion occurs, soils do not support plant growth. Falling rain on good quality soil moves into the ground to be easily used by plants.

If you garden organically, you probably use some of these products to add nutrients, like bat and bird guano, composted chicken manure, blood meal, chicken-feather meal, or fish meal for a source of nitrogen. Bonemeal is a good source of phosphorus, and kelp is an organic source of potassium. Fish emulsion is a good fertilizer. But when you consider the time and money of these additives, it really does get to be work.


At one time I used all these additives regularly, but realized my plants are doing fine with compost and manure and limited additives every few years. I found building and maintaining stable nutrient levels in the soil using natural materials was the way to go, and what is more natural than what is already there? This is because clay soils, for all the problems they present, hold a good amount of nutrients necessary for plant health.

If you want the science behind this as to why, see this Cornell article. Clay soil needs the help of good organic matter to increase particle size, porous spacing and even and balanced moisture retention.


So what do you add to take care of your garden soil? How often do you use soil additives?

Next post, Divide Me Please.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at: http://gardenwalkgardentalk.com
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22 Responses to Taking Care of the Soil

  1. Feeling blessed. I’m lucky to have deep, rich silt/loam soil common to Illinois, Iowa, S. Minnesota, and S. Wisconsin. It requires very little amendment. I do add compost, sea kelp, and epsom salts occasionally to some areas of the garden. And the marsh hay and decomposing leaves add more nutrients and texture. But it’s all organic. Having great soil to start with allows me to focus on other challenges–like rabbits, chipmunks, invasive plants, and periodic droughts, among others.

    • You are very lucky as is many areas very near me having perfect growing soil. The glacier activity long ago left some very great soil, but where I am is right on the glacier cut. We are all rock and homes built here had to have the foundations blasted out of gorge rock. Homes at the time were very expensive and we all have basements. The street where I live was once an orchard. How trees grew here and made fruit is beyond me knowing. Home foundations are made of this stone.

  2. I used to use peat moss, but now that I compost, I rely mostly on that. But no matter how much compost I make, it’s never enough. Nice photo of worms!

    • I use it maybe every five or six years. Our clay cracks and hardens and last year was especially bad considering it was not a dry year like all the previous recent years. My garden has both red and grey clay at different levels. Summer brings the clay to the surface, even with all that I add. Those worms did not last long though. They should have been speedier getting back underground. The robin brigade made short work of them. I suppose I should have gotten that photo too. or else not left them to their own devices.

  3. Denise says:

    Homemade compost is what I add. Loads and loads. But it is never enough for my poor dry sandy soil. I have also been photographing earthworms for a future post about compost. They are fascinating don’t you think?

    • Me too. I have been making for a long time. Compost is great for all soils and the worms love it. I add manure though since it really adds additional nutrients and is a good fertilizer. Worms are pretty cool for the soil and do have a lot of interesting things about them to write about. Weirdly, they are not native here. An invasive species???? You don’t hear nature fanatics disparaging European earthworms and honeybees.

  4. Good post! I’ve had my soil tested and it has very high organic matter. In most areas I don’t add compost any more, but I allow leaves and plant debris to settle. I do add composted manure to some coddled plants – roses, clematis, peonies, etc.i also use osmocote with my containers.

    • I let the leaves decompose in place in the gardens too. It is a big mess in fall, but also a good insulator. I too use Osmocote in containers but also still have that big commercial container of Miracle Gro that I use on houseplants and to push the containers at the end of the season..

  5. Very good information, Donna. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Living in Florida,we have sand for soil.Not to mention the heat that bakes everything out of the soil.So I am continually adding compost.From my compost pile and mushroom compost that I buy at my local nursery.It’s a continual thing,in Florida.But well worth it.

    • FL grows and grows. I always see huge plants there that here are dinky. You do get the heat though. I can imagine sandy soil is tough to maintain moisture. Compost would help greatly.

  7. I gave up on additives and use compost mostly and sometimes manure as I have a hard time finding organic manure…I am battling the fact that I have not added anything in a few years due to no time..this year we are starting in the front to add compost and hopefully manure to the gardens….the soil here is clay and poor in nutrients as it was stripped to build houses. I only use organic fertilizers on veg gardens, lawn and containers.

    • What do you consider organic manure? You do realize there are a lot of problems with manure containing antibiotics fed to livestock. Also weed seed if using horse manure, plus worming medicine that horses are given. If you get it right from the source, there is still these same problems. I personally don’t analyze how the manure is produced before it is packaged, just so it is fully composted. In PA I had horses and the mushroom plants would take the manure to grow mushrooms. We would get it back for gardens after the mushrooms grew if we wanted. That stuff was great for gardens. Black and fluffy. I think it is almost impossible to have manure that does not contain things we don’t want it to.

  8. Marna says:

    Very interesting blog. I compost in place, constantly adding leaves and grass to my garden. A heavy layer of leaves and grass helps my garden retain moisture thru our frequent droughts. It also keeps the weeds down which is a huge help out here in the country where weed seeds blow in from every pasture and fence row. My gardens look a little messy but It doesn’t bother me when the plants fill in and cover most of the mulch. Read an article a while back about how much damage earthworms were doing to some old forests.

    • I too compost in place with the leaves i fall, and it is messy until the perennials arrive. I really don’t mulch much outside of topdressing with compost, because the garden is packed tight. No point when the plants shade themselves. I too read the studies on worms in old forests. I am not sure there is much we can do about that though, earthworms are here to stay.

  9. roger Brook says:

    Very interesting post on a very big subject Donna. The fact that a good soil is about half void spaces that hold air and water is a very significant one.
    It is also good to be reminded that soils can take thousands of years to form from bare rock. I am grateful for your recent comments on one of my own posts in respect of the secondary mineral clay developing over thousands of years.
    To me it is an interesting fact that mycorrhizal fungi have had a bigger influence on natural soil formation than has hither to been realized.

    I think I might be more optimistic than you about soil building by man. I read recently of an organic farm in Scotland that had built up its soil on a rocky site with a mixture of half crushed granite and half organic municipal compost.

    I think you are rather hard on inorganic fertilisers. In my view organic fertilisers – as opposed to more bulky organic additives such as manure and compost– do little for the soil structure either. They are just a source of nutrients – and an expensive one.

    • I use inorganic fertilizers too, just selectively. The garden in Scotland must be beautiful with all those views too. I have read both commentary on organic fertilizers. Same with manure (fully composted, not hot) that it can be detrimental to plants. Sometimes there is too much science. The way it was meant to be – animals defecating, animals dying and decomposing, bugs aiding in decomposition, leaves falling, grasses browning, and on and on, just seems the simplest and most prudent way of maintenance. But all those things are an “insult” to a “proper” garden that people remove all of what nature naturally does to replenish. I agree, it is so many organisms we don’t see in the soil having a great impact. That is why I mentioned a lot of what people add can have a detrimental effect on them. Like I said, too much science.

  10. debsgarden says:

    Great post! I am actually giving a talk on the same topic to a master gardener’s group this month; it is a topic dear to my heart. In my own garden I use a lot of fish emulsion, and I add epsom salts (Magnesium sulfate) to ferns and evergreens ( 2 Tbs per gallon of water) in early spring and again in July. I always add a combination of soil conditioner and topsoil to my native clay soil when planting anything, and I add homemade compost to veggies at planting time. This works in my subtropical garden, where clay soil turns to plastic in the winter and to rock in the summer and where nutrients in the soil are quickly depleted by the mass of vegetative matter.

    • I have to do the Epsom salt application to my shade beds too. I too do the adding of compost to all newly planted plants. I like having all those soil critters doing their job. I to have the plastic and concrete clay flip. Boy does that clay bug me.

  11. Lily de Grey says:

    Thanks for sharing this article with us. I’m from a desert area, so you can imagine our soil isn’t very rich in nutrients or moisture. I’ve been trying to look into different soil treatments, but I haven’t had much luck! I usually add some compost to my garden—which includes manure and food that I don’t use. It’s worked okay, so far!

    • Always a good recipe for soil nourishment. I too add food waste, sometimes directly bypassing the composter. I just cut it up very small to aid in breakdown. I do this in my lily, iris, allium and gladioli bed where egg shells and banana peels help quite a bit.

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