Roots and Shoots: Soil! It’s What’s in the Dirt

By Pamela Doan

It’s the time of year when every gardener is fantasizing about the bounty of the backyard harvest as we endure what will hopefully be the last Winter Weather Warning. Ripe tomatoes warm from the sun, not traumatized by their long journey from a faraway place, crunchy peppers and corn! Remember corn? Sweet, juicy corn on the cob? Good times ahead.

Last fall, I joined the Master Gardener Volunteer Program with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Putnam County, embarking on a three-month journey of learning to interpret the natural world around me. If I listed everything we covered in our eight hours of class each week, I’d have to use up most of this space. In short, it was roots and shoots and everything in between, including insects and wildlife. The biggest lesson for me, though, was about healthy soil.

gardening flowersNot enough can be said about the importance of the soil that you plant in. I’ve been an urban gardener since college, sticking flowers and vegetables into the ground at various houses and in containers on rooftops and window ledges. I always thought it was mostly just fine to dig a hole, plop in a tomato plant or daisy, cover the roots and water it. I knew enough to avoid obviously wrong places — sandy or clay soil, or spots where rainwater puddled — but it all looked pretty OK to me and I’d cheerfully turn up the dirt and obliviously expect results. Not so. There’s a whole world of life in the ground.

Bad Idea 1: Soil takes care of itself. You don’t need to do anything with it.

If you increase the organic matter of your soil by 1 percent, you’ll get 12 percent more yield. Tomato plants didn’t thrive last year? This is an easy way to get better results that’s completely manageable for any gardener and can be accomplished in an afternoon.

Organic matter is the key to healthy, thriving plants. Look around and you’ve probably got a lot of materials in your own yard. Grass clippings, shrub and tree prunings, and other plant materials can be composted with vegetable and fruit waste to create compost. Shredded leaves can be composted or added right to the soil as mulch. Manure isn’t sitting around most of our yards, but it can be used, as well, as long as it has been aged appropriately, like a fine wine. Soils rich in organic matter hold water better (less watering and irrigation) and have lots of air and space for roots to grow, as well as being high in nutrition for plant growth.

Simple ways to get to know your soil: What color is it? Soil rich with the right stuff is dark. Where does water go? If it puddles or stands on top, you need more organic matter. How does it smell? Healthy soil smells rich and earthy. A sour smell is a sign of poor air circulation, meaning not enough organic matter. How does it feel? Rub it between your fingers. Crumbly soil has lots of organic matter. How does it taste? Just kidding. Or go ahead and try it, then tell me about it.

Bad Idea 2: Sunlight is the main thing to consider when choosing where to plant.

Repeat after me, “Right plant, right place.” Plants need sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil to thrive and all are important considerations. Some plants are made to thrive in shade; you just have to learn which ones are which.

Bad Idea 3: You need to till the soil and break it up every year before you plant anything.

Girl Holding PlantTilling, with a rototiller or by hand, isn’t necessary and actually does more harm than good. Tilling contributes to erosion, brings up weeds and destroys the ecosystem of the soil.

Alternatives to tilling include “lasagna gardening” in raised beds or planting directly into layers of mulch and compost that you add to your garden and flowerbeds. I’m a huge fan of “lasagna gardening,” which refers more to layering materials to create a rich soil to plant in rather than the delicious pasta dish itself. Look for an upcoming column on this subject.

Questions about gardening? Next week we’ll give you an email address to send them to. I’ll try to answer them all here or online.

2 thoughts on “Roots and Shoots: Soil! It’s What’s in the Dirt

  1. What a great article! You made us Master Gardeners of Putnam proud. Kept up the good work and teach people, especially how important the soil is. I have been studying about the life in it and it is so amazing. Thanks for getting the word out.

  2. Yes I agree, a great article. Having been a Master Gardener for 20 years, I also am proud. It’s nice to see these programs on this side of the county. The other day at the Desmond Fish library I saw a whole new (to me) crop of Master Gardeners doing the spring school. Now I cannot stop thinking about it. Maybe it’s time to get back to my roots. Cornell Co Op is a great organization; the Master Gardeners are just a small part of that. I have benefited greatly from being involved with them over the last 25 years. Keep up the good work, guys!