How To Build Healthy Soil

In my previous blog post called “Why Do We Garden?” I delved into why gardening brings great satisfaction to so many people.  I stressed the importance of healthy soils and the billions of microbes in the soil with the corresponding positive effect on human health and well-being and as the foundation of healthy ecosystems.  That’s all well and good, but how do you tell if your soil is healthy? In this blog I will touch on HOW to create the healthy soils necessary as a foundation to a healthy garden.  

The first question – How can you tell if you soil is healthy? That is an easy one.  You can spend a lot of time and money on testing your soil but there is a much easier way – simply dig in the soil and observe.  Is the soil is crumbly, dark and moist (good signs) or dry and clumpy (not so good signs)? The darker the color, the more likely the soil has lots of good organic matter that can feed insects, worms, and a myriad of little critters.  These are signs of healthy soil.    If your soil is less than what you hoped, don’t despair.  There are many ways to help build healthy soils.  

At Willow Springs we utilize 4 main techniques to build the soil in our gardens:   

  • Addition of organic matter in the form of compost and bio-char
  • Mulching to keep moisture in and weeds out
  • Limited disturbance/tilling of the soil
  • Minimized soil compaction by creating and using many pathways
One of our girls

Composting is a new concept for many of our Lodge guests.  Composting is simply taking various organic matter and using the right techniques and combinations,  letting nature and time turn it into nutrient-rich living soil.  That this is a foreign idea to so many people was a surprise to me, because growing up in a gardening family, it was just something we always did.  And it was logical to take the huge amounts of kitchen scraps produced from our guests at the Lodge and add it to our compost – but only IF we could keep them from throwing all those coffee grounds, banana peels, vegetable trimmings and leftover scraps into the trash!  This was not  an easy thing to do, because habits are hard to break – especially for something so strange!  Early on I added to some “compost newby” guest’s confusion by also suggesting they also separate the compost into “chicken scraps” and “non-chicken scraps”.   After their stay I went to collect their trash/recycling/compost and there was…nothing. All the containers were empty!  What did they do with it all?!  We found out later that they were so worried about doing it “wrong” that they took everything home with them!  Now I try to keep it simple and just ask guests to do the best that they can to put their compost in the bin and NOT stress about it.  If they love to compost – then we get down to specifics!  I also like to encourage families with kids to say hi to the chickens, and that they are welcome to feed kitchen scraps to them.  The kids love to do this and then remind their parents to save the scraps.   Feeding food scraps to the chickens is an indirect way to compost, as the chickens then poop on their bedding straw which is then composted.   If you are interested in composting but need more “stuff”, simply ask around.  You can often get lots of free composting materials from restaurants, neighbors (all those bags of leaves) and local farms. This year we picked up a trailer load of horse manure to also add to our compost pile – a gold mine of nutrients for free!

Another composting “surprise” I had was when our first big patch of compost here at Willow Springs was “done” and I went with my husband Mark to uncover and move it for use in the garden.  Mark grew up a city boy and had never composted.  Nor did he really pay attention to my compost pile activities, so he was amazed when it was uncovered and the mulch pulled back, the dark rich soil was exposed. “How did that happen?!  It looks just like soil!” He had seen the totes of kitchen scraps, dirty chicken straw and mounds of grass clippings and weeds that went into it, but had never seen a final “product.”  The magic of composting happens because billions of microbes munched their way through it all and turned it into nutrient-rich soil.  I wish that our guests could also see this magic happen, as it provides a new appreciation for saving all those kitchen scraps.  

Another technique that I recently learned is to make and use “biochar” in the garden. Guests who wander behind the permaculture garden will see the bio-char pit where we make it. Basically, you do a modified burn pile and put the fire out when it’s at the charcoal stage instead of letting it burn to ash. This charcoal is a great soil amendment –  improving water-holding capacity, making it easier for plants to take up water, nutrients and air, and all while providing a more hospitable environment for microorganisms.  Biochar must first be inoculated with microorganisms before you use it directly in your garden, which is why we add it to the compost pile.  It remains in the soil for literally thousands of years, with the added benefit that it sequesters carbon. 

The biochar pit at our local community center
Bio-char mixed with chicken poop straw


Mulching:  It’s amazing to me how many people spend hours raking up leaves -only to put them in garbage bags for trash pickup.  Leaves are natures way to replenish nutrients back to the soil, and they are a great addition to a compost pile or as a mulch.  We rake up leaves and pine needles from areas we want to look nice such as gravel areas and lawns, and move it all onto our garden beds as a mulch.  Ideally I want a 4-6” layer to suppress weeds and keep moisture in.  We also use bales of straw as mulch, as we can’t rake enough leaves to create the thick layer I sometimes want.  No need for herbicides, and weeding is manageable.  From having a garden without mulch to having a garden with mulch, I can say that the difference is huge!  Without mulch the soil dries out so fast in the summer and needs much more water; a thick layer of mulch keeps the soil cool, protected, and preserves moisture providing a great environment for the all-important microbes and soil critters.  Pull back a layer of mulch, take a trowel and dig a hole and you will likely come up with earthworms.  That didn’t happen when we weren’t mulching. 

No-till gardening:  I started hearing about “no-till” gardening years ago, and was very resistant to the idea.  How would you possibly get your soil ready for planting if you didn’t till?  But as I learned about the importance of soil microorganisms, I also learned that healthy soils have vertical layers which support various bacterial and fungal communities, and when you roto-till or plow these communities become completely jumbled up.  Habitats are thrown into chaos.  Fragile bodies are broken.  Simply put:  the microbial scene is seriously messed up.  With this visual in mind, I began to accept the idea and then embrace it for the garden.  We designed the garden with no-till “food forests” instead of rows that get tilled.  There is still some soil disturbance that happens when we plant, but it’s nothing on the scale of a tractor pulling a plow over the entire garden.  We did serious digging when putting in our asparagus bed, but that was a necessary one-time deal.  We work to minimize soil disturbance as much as we can. The mulch and no-till system go hand-in-hand because the soil doesn’t become hard and dried out exposed to the constant sun, so it doesn’t need the tilling.  And another benefit of the no-till system?  It can be less work.

Limiting soil compaction:  Limiting the compaction of the soil is another way to protect healthy soils.  Driving tractors and trucks, and people constantly walking on the growing areas compresses soil, removing air pockets and making it more difficult for water and nutrients to penetrate into the ground.  Just like jumbled microbial communities from tilling, I visualize soil compaction like the flattened buildings after a major earthquake – all the living and breathing space is destroyed.  Compacted soils host lower microbial populations of bacteria and fungi, destroy larger tunnels and pathways that larger organisms such as worms use to search for food, and prevent plant roots from penetrating.   When we converted the garden from a rows of tilled veggies to no-till food forests back in 2021, we first had to do a lot of infrastructure work.  Using the excavator, we dug a LOT of deep trenches for the installation of water pipes to each food forest.  The entire west side fence was seriously overgrown in blackberries and had to be torn out with a tractor.   During all this time, I watched with anxiety as the tractors and excavators drove all over the garden, knowing how much this machinery was compacting the soil.  It was a necessary part of building our garden but I worried about how the soil would recover.  Would it take years?  When planting the permaculture crops of fruit trees, raspberries, and asparagus the soil was definitely very dense and compacted, and we broke up many dense clumps of compacted soil as we mixed in our compost.  We are still building our soils up from this trauma, which is why finding worms is so exciting to me – it’s a sign we are succeeding!  The worms have appeared faster than I thought.  We now have designated paths and only walk on the food growing areas when necessary.  I am excited that our soil will only get better and better!

There are a few other techniques that should be implemented for anyone serious about building their soils – cover cropping and plant rotation.  Plant rotation is important to prevent disease organisms (which have an affinity for certain plants) from  becoming established in the soil.  Cover cropping is a way to grow your own organic matter – plants grow and are then allowed to decompose in place, or as they say, “chopped and dropped.”  Some cover crops also have symbiotic relationship with bacteria to fix nitrogen in the soil.  

It has become abundantly clear that what is happening below the soil is just as important as what is happening above the soil.  The ancient wisdom from the Emerald Tablet (900 BCE) seems to apply here:  “As above, so below.” You can’t have a healthy macro-ecosystem if you don’t have a healthy soil micro-ecosystem.  

The good news is that nature is resilient, and with these simple steps you can start building your own healthy soils.  It might mean a simple change in habit from throwing everything in the trash to composting, or raking leaves to provide a protective mulch over your garden.  Provide the habitat (yummy organic matter, moisture) and the soil organisms seem to magically appear.