Building Soil for Success
To really build soil, you've got to treat it like a living partner.
Let's dig into the principles of soil health with a few ideas to keep your soil and plants productive and thriving.
Let it live
Bee kind- think before you spray. If you need to eliminate a "weed" or destructive insect, keep in mind that it will likely kill off the good bugs and plants too. Doing this will setback your soil building progress, and can often put the soil system in a state of imbalance that might allow the worst "weeds" or bugs to thrive. If you absolutely need to kill something, make sure to follow it up with a beneficial life-giving addition such as a thin topdressing of compost. You can even make your own cost-effective compost tea to spray as a soil drench or foliar application.
*All photos courtesy of Chatham County Extension Agent Debbie Roos and are taken at the Pollinator Paradise Demonstration Garden in Pittsboro, NC.
Keep it planted
If you don't plant it nature will, so you might as well give it the plants you want. Plant roots play a critical role in soil building and also can provide a green cover for the soil that acts like a mulch layer, keeping the soil cooler when it's hot and dry. "Cover crops" have become a favorite way for farmers to improve soil and often act as a place holder until it is time to plant what you want to harvest. Never underestimate the power of a tiny seed to change your life (and build your soil).
Keep it Covered
Always apply a mulch on unplanted soil. If you cannot plant the area yet, use a tarp or cardboard to cover the area until you're ready to get to work. If you just let it sit bare, erosion and weeds will start to take over and you'll wish you had just bought that silage tarp. For those that know about silage tarps- please tell your friends how life-changing they are! They can cover an area over winter to keep the soil happy as it digests any plant matter and roots that may have been leftover from the previous season. Or it can be tarped early in the year before Spring for a few months before you're ready to plant your summer garden. When you remove the tarp, you'll have an earthy-smelling rich soil that is relatively weed-free and ready to plant. This is especially great for maneuvering through a wet Spring, because the tarp keeps the soil drier. Mulch pathways and in between rows to help kickstart fungal growth, which is a necessary component of the soil food web. The communication network of the soil is fungal, so keep the fungus among us if your goal is to grow.
Respect the complexity
The soil food web is perfectly capable of raising a healthy plant all on its own, but what we do to get in it's way can disrupt the process. Tilling, spraying to kill, and putting the wrong plant in the wrong spot are all activities that people think are getting them ahead. The soil is alive and will give you clues that you've done something wrong. It is best to learn the language of the soil and we can do that by first giving it our observatory respect. It isn't complicated to observe complexity and be willing to respect that the soil knows what it is doing. Overall, your soil wants to thrive and build. Adding compost provides fuel to the soil food web, and in turn provides plenty of energy to keep plants growing strong.
Photo: Mycorrhizae under a 5 gallon bucket sitting in a "nature's choice cover crop" that inhabited a garden in Winter.
Diversity pays off
You've heard that you shouldn't keep all your eggs in one basket, right? The same is true for the soil. Of course, in this context we're talking about plant diversity as well as soil microbial diversity. Although plant diversity will lead to soil microbial diversity, there is often good reason to add a commercially produced compost such as our BR-1. We can help to save yourself years of hard work with the power of 3 decades of humus cycling from a diverse feedstock mix native to North Carolina's individually unique regions. Microbial diversity is a given for all products produced at Brooks Compost Facility. Aim for as much plant diversity as you can get in your garden and landscape and you'll be amazed at how well the plants are able to grow together.
Photo courtesy of Debbie Roos. Late July blooms in the Pollinator Paradise Garden (Culver's root, whorled tickseed, coneflower, cardinal flower, and hoary skullcap)
Know What You've Got
Do you actually have soil, or do you have subsoil? Throughout Central NC, many farmers and homeowners are working with properties that have had the "topsoil" scraped off and removed around their homes in order to build the foundation. Although there are pockets of excellent soil, rock-hard clay soil or very sandy soil is extremely common throughout NC. When dealing with the latter, approach it as a soil-building investment. The best soil profiles have several inches of organic matter at the top, followed by a thick layer of dark colored topsoil that sits on top of subsoil that leads to parent material (rock). Thicker layers of organic matter and topsoil lead to the most efficient soils both for environmental reasons (water absorption instead of erosion) and plant growth. Brooks Compost can really make a difference for those working with rock-hard subsoil or extremely sandy soils. If you cannot place a shovel into your soil, you may be a great candidate for raised beds filled with our ready to plant in BR-4 landscape soil. Aim for at least 6 inches of soil in raised beds. 1-2 foot will provide more than enough room for roots to spread so plants can thrive.
Photos show what is possible with a silage tarp used to prepare a deep compost mulch system. Our BR-1MG works best for this system.
Give it time
Just like your own health, you can't go from incredibly unhealthy to incredibly healthy overnight. Soil takes time to develop it's fertile capacity. You'll know you are getting there when plants look healthy and are thriving without too much of your assistance. This is where soil preparation using compost really starts to pay off. Compost can also be a great carrier for other additions you may wish to consider, such as blood meal, bone meal, feather meal, alfalfa meal, kelp, azomite, and many other organically-derived soil additives for mineral content and a boost of nitrogen. We aim for novice growers to prepare the soil with compost and then prepare yourself to be amazed at what you've grown. Plant it in soil prepared with compost, water in well, and then just let it grow. Most transplants will take a couple weeks to settle their roots, find what it needs, and take off. Patience is a virtue!
Conduct your own research
In a world full of marketing gimmicks, photo editors, and paid advertisements we encourage you to be your own researcher on your own property. Everyone has their own unique microclimate that affects many plant health and growth factors. We invite you to DIY and see what works best for your unique conditions. If you're using Brooks Compost for the first time, pick a small area to apply it or keep a control area where it is not applied so that you can see what it brings to your production. Pay attention to how the plants react in the hottest weather, wettest weather, or other stressful times. Not only will you see a huge difference from the very start, but you'll notice a remarkable buffering capacity that helps to stabilize the soil during the worst weather conditions. For this reason many farmers, gardeners, and landscapers simply won't prepare land without Brooks Compost! We encourage you to continue side-by-side comparisons when using any soil amendments, many of them complimentary to Brooks Compost.
Photo: Nadapeno pepper trial in the Brooks Compost '21 demo garden. In addition to a handful in the hole at transplanting, the peppers on the left were topped with an extra handful of BR-1.