Soil is the most important thing in gardening and farming. Yields, pest and disease pressures, and the nutrient-density of your vegetables are all determined by the quality of your garden soil.
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.Hippocrates
Great Garden Soil = Higher Yield
Gardeners and farmers are really only harvesting about 15% of what they could be. Plants have the genetic capability in their seeds to produce tremendously more fruits and vegetables than they do. But every time a plant is exposed to a stress throughout its lifetime, the plant’s final yield potential is decreased. What if each of your tomato plants produced four to five times more tomatoes? It’s theoretically possible. With this in mind, we should no longer think about “increasing yields” in our gardens, but rather “preventing yields from being lost.” The seed already knows how much fruit it can produce, and it’s our job to help it get there.
It’s impossible for a plant to yield anywhere close to 100% of its genetic potential, but our aim is to get it as close as possible. There are numerous things gardeners can do to keep that number high: planting at the right time, watering your garden correctly, mulching your garden, or using organic methods. But by far the largest yield loss is from not creating the right soil environment for plants to thrive.
As organic gardeners, our job is to recreate the ideal of nature. In nature, plants, soil, and microorganisms create a complex and beautiful system that enables plants to reach true health. The soil feeds the plants the nutrients and water the plants need to grow. The plants feed the soil by sending sugar exudates through their roots. And the soil biology (bacteria, fungi, earthworms) enables the whole system to function. It’s a gross oversimplification, but illustrates how interrelated the system is. Interrupting any one component influences the health of the entire system, and thus the final yield of your garden.
If we get our soil right, plants will continuously have the right supply of nutrients through their lifetime to produce healthy plants and fruitful yields. The number one problem keeping plants at 15% of their possible yield is the mineral nutrition of the soil!
Great Garden Soil = Fewer Pests and Disease (or none at all!)
Once the engine of soil is functioning properly – where the soil is feeding the plants and the plants are feeding the soil – gardening becomes easier and more fun.
In nature, plants rarely die of pests or disease. William Albrecht explained that “Insects are nature’s garbage collectors, and diseases are her cleanup crew.” Pests and diseases attack weak plants, not healthy ones. If we create healthy plants in our gardens, pests and diseases become less of an issue. If we create a perfectly functioning system, our kale should never die of an aphid infestation and our tomatoes should rarely die of disease. How does that happen?
Nutrition Geeks Listen Up – this will sound familiar.
A plant’s immune system is controlled primarily by the mineral nutrition of the soil. Plants pull nutrients from the soil to synthesize various plant compounds: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. Each of these compounds is a chain of elements of various lengths—carbohydrates generally being the shortest and simplest chains, proteins increasingly complex, and lipids often the longest chained compounds. In order for these compounds to form, the plant needs several critical enzymes to facilitate the reaction.
It turns out that there are over 60 minerals necessary for true plant health, each of which acts as an enzyme in the synthesis of these compounds. When plants have the right minerals, they can build increasingly complex carbohydrates that make the plant more resistant to soil-borne diseases. When other minerals allow longer-chained proteins to be synthesized, plants contain higher protein content that prevent the leaves from being eaten by many sucking and chewing insects such as aphids and cabbage loopers (an aphid digestive tract cannot digest protein like humans can). When the engine is turning and the plant is making excess carbs and protein, the plant begins to store them as fats. When the plant cells are rich in fats, air-borne diseases become less prevalent. Finally, the plant will produce secondary metabolite compounds that protect it against many beetles such as the dreaded flea beetle.
Moral of the story…get your soil mineral nutrition right and you don’t have to understand the paragraph you just read!
Great Garden Soil = More Nutritious Food
The above paragraph on plant nutrition may sound shockingly similar to human nutrition, because it is! We’re the ones eating the plants after all.
As a review, healthy soil leads to plants with:
- More complex carbohydrates
- Higher protein content
- Higher content of Omega 3 Fats (Quick Reminder: fats are good, and the American diet has too many Omega 6’s and not enough Omega 3’s).
We can literally increase the nutrient density of our food by recreating nature in our backyard. And don’t forget…
- If you’re gardening organically, your plants also won’t have dangerous synthetic chemicals on them.
- Harvesting fresh produce out your backdoor is tremendously more nutritious than eating vegetables shipped from across the country, as vitamins and minerals begin to break down immediately after harvest.
- Heirloom veggies are also much higher in phytochemicals than conventional produce.
- And More Nutritious Food = Better Tasting Food (blog post coming soon)
The idea behind the Urban Farm Company raised beds is that they’re filled with a premium soil mix that’s as close to ideal as possible on day one. It’s high in organic matter, drains well, has the right nutrients and trace minerals in the right proportions, and is the perfect environment for beneficial microbes that are the key to healthy organic soil. Our goal is to create an ‘ideal’ soil that helps nature function—leading to high yields, lower pests and disease, and more nutritious food.
Learn more about the problem (and solution) to most garden soils.
Learn more about The Urban Farm Company’s soil mix.