As the first thaws of March stir a sweet restlessness in the souls of all gardeners, the last frost date is still months away. There’s little to be done but sigh wistfully over seed catalogues and maybe start a few pots indoors. Or is there…? Now might be a good time to put some thought into a soil-building program. After all, Mother Nature usually bares the earth some time in April, weeks before even the hardiest plants can be set out.
Although there are numerous plant fertilizers on the market, these won’t improve your soil structure, foster beneficial micro-organisms, supply trace elements or encourage earthworms to take up residence. So rather than just feeding your plants, practise a little earth magic and feed your soil as well.
Mulch – Enough can’t be said for the benefits of organic mulches such as straw, spoiled hay or leaf mould. Not only do they retain soil moisture and suppress weeds, but they break down, adding nutrients to the soil. Don’t limit use of mulch to the growing season—lay it down in the fall to prevent winter leaching of nutrients. “Mulch Queen” Ruth Stout[i] has written persuasively about the time- and back-saving gains from a thick layer of mulch over the entire garden.
Ash – Wood ash from your own or a neighbour’s woodstove contains a surprising number of elements and microelements[ii] that plants require. If your soil is acidic, use ash instead of lime to amend it, but at twice the application rate (approximately one five-gallon pail to 1,000 ft2). Wear a mask when applying wood ash and work it in at the root level of the soil. Ash should not be applied immediately before planting.
Green Manure – Plant an early crop of a legume such as clover or alfalfa. Mow it and turn it under a few weeks before you plant. Green manures improve soil structure, fix nitrogen, add organic matter and encourage pollinating insects in the garden plot.
Intersowing – Plant a cover of low-growing clover between garden rows. It offers the benefits of green manuring while the garden in is progress. It also serves as a live mulch to suppress weeds, prevent soil compaction and retain moisture, with the added advantage of enriching the soil when turned under. It’s nice underfoot too!
Compost – The black gold of the gardening world, compost is easily made in any back yard, or yes, even indoors. Vermicomposting is a wonderful excuse to poke around in dirt all winter while worms turn your kitchen waste into rich, odourless compost. Kids take particular delight in “feeding” the worms and separating them from the final product in spring. A quick search of the web will introduce you to options ranging from readymade worm condos to do-it-yourself worm composting kits. When your worm population expands, you can add a second composter or pass on some of your wriggly wealth to a friend.
Soil enrichment is an integral part of sustainable agriculture. Any veggie plot, no matter what the size, can benefit from a little earth magic!