How Do You Know If You Have Healthy Soil?

Soil Health

Last summer when visiting my in-laws, I went out to their backyard to see their new raised bed garden. Immediately upon looking at their garden I knew they had a problem. The plants were not deep green, but rather a more yellowish color. They also weren’t as big as they should have been for that time of year, and some were putting on fruit even though they hadn’t reached full size. I figured they had a nutrient deficiency in their soil.

When we moved into our new house last year I ordered a garden mix of ½ compost and ½ topsoil for my new raised beds. During the first week in June I planted the beds with seedlings. By the first week of July I realized that none of the plants had grown and many had turned yellow. Because I knew I had enough sun and I was growing varieties I had a lot of experience with, I figured I must have a soil issue.

I can’t stress enough how important soil health is to a successful garden. Unhealthy plants don’t grow as big, don’t produce as much food, and are more susceptible to pest and disease issues. With practice, you can often tell by just looking at plants that they’re struggling due to lack of nutrients. In general, your plants should be a deep, deep green. (Unless of course they are a variety of a different color!)

When I shared this in a garden class recently, one of the participants said, “How do I know what deep green is?” A great question, and not an easy one to answer. You could visit your local farmers market and compare the color of the vendors’ leaves to yours (kale, carrot greens, basil, etc). Or, you could stroll through a community garden and compare the different shades of plants, looking for the greenest and most healthy ones to start to train your eyes to recognize what plants should look like.

If you’ve struggled with your garden over the years, there are only a few things that are likely to blame. Lack of sun and soil nutrient deficiency are at the top of the list.

person holding soil in hands

So if you think you might have a deficiency what do you do? Here are the steps I took.

I immediately mixed up a Complete Organic Fertilizer based on a book I had read the previous winter, The Intelligent Gardener. The mix uses large amounts of the main plant nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) and small amounts of trace minerals like potassium sulfate, copper and magnesium sulfate. I put a ring around each plant and gently worked it into the soil. Within a week my plants put on more green growth than they had in the previous 4 weeks. Success!

For a more complete profile of my soil condition, I took a soil sample and sent it to a lab that tests for macro and mirco nutrients in the soil. You should never start adding things to your soil without first knowing what is lacking. I use Logan Labs, located in Ohio.

This year, I decided to add the Complete Organic Fertilizer to every bed before planting as a preventative measure. On a whole, my plants have looked healthy throughout the season. But this weekend when I was working in my garden, I noticed that some of my beans and cucumber leaves are turning yellow. My assumption is that the plants used up the added nutrients I spread when planting and now there’s not enough in the soil to support their healthy growth. So, I added more COF around the plants and watered it in well.

There are no easy answers to nutrient deficiency and there’s no miracle cure. I’ll be working on my soil for years to come and closely monitoring its health. But, based on past experience, I know it’s critical. I simply cannot have a productive garden with poor quality soil. It’s impossible.

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