In the Garden:
New England
June, 2005
Regional Report

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Healthy soil depends on a robust population of earthworms, springtails, nematodes, and mites, to mention just a few of your soil's caretakers.

Healthy Soil: What Lies Beneath?

Many a gardener, myself included, has succumbed to "planting frenzy," only to guiltily admit later on that maybe we should have let the soil dry out a bit more or maybe they should have taken the time to mix in some organic matter. One rainy spring, I was in such a hurry when the clouds finally parted that I tilled the garden when the soil was wet. Ouch! I ended up with a garden full of cement-like clods. Let's face it, the buck stops with the soil. The healthiest plants won't stand a chance if the soil doesn't nourish them with plenty of air, moisture, and nutrients.

So, how do we know if our soil is healthy? We may notice plants not thriving -- that's a clue. But really we need to have a look below the surface because soil health is more than skin deep. Healthy soil supports a living world underground as well as aboveground. From earthworms to microscopic organisms, the living creatures in soil need the same conditions plants do to thrive. If the critters are plentiful, that means they are happy, and if they are happy, your plants have a better chance of being happy too.

As the Worm Turns
If you haven't yet developed an appreciation for earthworms, nematodes, springtails, or mites (to mention just a few inhabitants of the soil), it's time to warm up to these creatures. They are your soil's lifelong caretakers. Together with fungi, bacteria, and other microorganisms, these underground inhabitants can improve life for plants almost as much as all of your day-to-day efforts. We all know that organic matter is good for the soil, but it's the soil creatures that spin all this straw into gold. Earthworms digest organic materials and produce excrement -- called "castings" in polite company -- that is rich in nutrients that might otherwise be unavailable to plants. Insects, spiders, and nematodes break up organic matter into smaller pieces that bacteria and fungi can more easily decompose. In this process of decomposition, even more nutrients are released for your plants.

Soil creatures also help improve the soil structure. When you dig into your soil and see small clumps -- or aggregates -- of soil particles, you're looking at the soil's structure. A soil with good structure has aggregates of varying sizes and shapes because this configuration creates pore spaces of varying sizes for good water and air movement. Earthworms and other critters help by physically creating air spaces and breaking apart large clumps of organic material as they move through the soil. Also, in the process, a glue-like substance is created that actually helps soil particles cling together to form aggregates.

Unfortunately, we can inadvertently harm these soil organisms with certain gardening practices. Weed killers and pesticides are toxic to soil life. So even though they may provide a quick-fix solution, they kill beneficial soil creatures -- not to mention bees and pollinating insects -- and end up creating more problems than they solve.

Tilling is certainly a handy way to loosen soil, but those tiller blades slice through more than soil. By tilling only when necessary and hand digging whenever possible, we can preserve our earthworm populations so they, in turn, can help loosen the soil in their own natural way.

Here's an idea for gauging the health of your soil: count earthworms. If you're squeamish, ask a kid to help. Dig up a 1-foot-square patch of your garden soil to a depth of 6 inches. Spread out the soil on a tarp and count the earthworms. You'll need to move the soil around to expose their hiding places. If you only find a couple, your soil needs a good dose of organic matter. If you find 10 or more, your soil is probably in good shape and you can skip the soil-building work for the day and go fishing ... with flies, that is; the soil needs the worms!


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