It’s rare that we see raw land healthy and ready to plant our survival gardens. Usually, we’re going to have to give it a helping hand. Healthy soil can mean the difference between a garden that produces in abundance and one that barely gives you a return for your efforts. If we’re already planting, chances are, we already know we’re going to have to continue maintaining our garden soil if we want it to continue producing for us.
Here’s a double handful of prepper-friendly ways we can offset the produce we’re taking out of our gardens and orchards in numerous ways.
Healthy Soil Needs to be Tested
Many county extension offices offer free or low-cost testing for pH and the big three macronutrients – NPK: Nitrogen, Phosphorus & Potassium. With some plant matter provided, they can test for micronutrients as well.
The pH of soil affects how readily available healthy soil nutrients are to plants.
Knowing what soils already hold and what plants are going in next helps us tailor our rotations and amendments most efficiently and effectively.
Preppers can benefit from having a professional test done, and using an at-home meter or test the same year to establish how accurate they/it is. Then stock additional test strips or a meter to continue testing.
Be sure to collect soil from the root zones, not just the surface. Particularly in areas with heavy clay or sandy base soil and pines or oaks above, striations and graduation can occur that create very different zones at different depths.
*Make some distilled water for soil testing – just rig a clean pot lid to catch and drip steam from a boiling pot or kettle sometime a stove/oven/grill is running anyway.
Healthy Soil Needs to be Covered
How tired are we of talking about mulches? They’re just that beneficial, though especially to healthy soil.
Mulches protect soil from compaction, regulate temperature, reduce weed competition, encourage mostly beneficial soil microbes, aid with preventing splash-up in heavy rains, decrease evaporation and runoff, and in most cases slowly re-feed soil throughout the season(s).
Used correctly, they not only limit the day-to-day labors of gardening, they have long-term rewards in healthy soil.
If you’re not into mulch, at least cover gardens during off-seasons. Plastic trash bags or wrap from shipping pallets or boats, tarps, salvaged baby pools, and roofing tin, liquor-store cardboard, holey blankets, and sheets – whatever can be laid on to help prevent surface-blown and dropped weed seed and limit rain and snowmelt carrying away soils and nutrients.
Salvage Tree Debris
Nearby trees can fill a lot of our garden needs. Sticks and branches can be trimmed for fences and supports, they and logs can create elevated soil boundaries, and they can be used as woody cores or bases inside raised beds, creating slow-breakdown feeds and water sinks that keep our soil much more productive. Leaves or needles and chipped branches make excellent mulches.
All of them have a huge advantage over other plant or non-organic material we might use instead.
Those trees have nice, deep roots, see. They have been compiling nutrients from far deeper and far wider in the earth than shallow-rooted flora. When they break down, our gardens and orchards get boosts of the micro-nutrients and bulk nutrients our soils so desperately need.
Some of our waste-to-garden products are pretty well known, like coffee, tea, and eggshells. Some of the less common options are…
Homestead & Household Waste = Feed for your Soil
- Butcher Wastes – If you or somebody else is slaughtering (or cooking), save pretty much everything. Before anybody squeals about animal parts: You can buy bone and blood meal for your compost and garden, or make it at home to cut costs and close waste loops. Compost requires balance and moderation in some things, especially worm bins, not extreme never-always diets – just like us.
- Feathers can be mixed directly into gardens or compost or chipped, and aid in both nutrients and soil structure – serving as nearly a peat replacement on that front.
- Cut-up hides and bits from shearing provide the same, along with excellent moisture retention.
- Roast or boil bones, then dry them outdoors or in the oven/dehydrator. Bash them with a small mallet on a sturdy cloth on the driveway or inside a bucket (which can also work with a drill running a chain for hollow poultry bones; heavier duty chain but the same theory as small-scale grain threshing.) Then, run them through a sausage grinder, coffee mill, or small chipper-shredder and sprinkle the resulting flakes and bits through gardens or compost.
- Blood is an excellent addition for healthy soil, and can be poured onto beds or at the base of perennials, or go into compost or tossed into leaves bagged for leaf mold just like we buy blood meal to add to gardens.
Any of the above can also be reduced to ash, char, or rendered using homemade charcoal methods.
Char Almost Anything
Wood ash, pseudo-charcoal, and biochar can be made from all sorts of readily available homestead and household goods to feed our soils.
Don’t get too enthusiastic about applying biochar or ash. A little goes a long way and there can be too much of a good thing. (Some recent studies decried biochar after replacing 25% and 50% of soil with it – most amendments would fail.) Use the same small rates you would for lime, pelleted fertilizers, powder amendments, and ash.
Almost anything you’d feed a chicken or goat, used as mulch, or compost is applicable to biochar: sunflower, corn, and other grain stalks and hulls/cobs; pea/bean/peanut pods; chipper-shredded wood; pulp from sugaring beets, cane, or sorghum; cracked nutshells.
Hair Trimmings & Pet Sheddings
Hair can also be sprinkled atop or turned into the soil, compost trenches, or worm bins.
It does zero for either predators or prey pests, and it doesn’t do much for soil structure, hair and fur is absolutely full of a wide variety of micro-nutrients that can be quickly stripped from our gardens as well as the biggie: Nitrogen.
Worms are almost as varied as horse or dog breeds, and just like our animals, they have different jobs and different needs. Big ol’ earthworms are great. Ideally, you’re also seeing a bunch of much smaller, much shyer little skinny wiggler types.
They’re the ones even more responsible for creating a horizontal matrix of tunnels through the bed – which aids in aeration and proper water movement. They’re also a much better indicator of healthy soil structure (they’re not as powerful as earthworms) and, being a touch more sensitive and specific, they indicate healthy soil biology in the form of microbes that allow those worms to process organic matter and release their black-gold castings.
Both types offer condensed and readily available nutrients via worm castings and help cycle nutrients into available formats for annuals, especially, and we see them most often in gardens rich with organic matter, sparing with the pesticides and fungicides, and easy on the tilling, especially deep cultivation.
If you’re dumping a tub of bait worms in the garden every 1-3 years, only see big thick pinky earthworms or the greenish “wood” worms, give some serious thought to working homemade compost and leaf mold, finding alternatives to any powders and sprays you’re using, and the next two suggestions.
Stop Stirring Soil
Understand tilling. It does a few of things as it fluffs soil. That provides air (which can create nitrogen flushes, which is a whole thing on its own) and it provides an easier platform for roots to expand into. It also breaks up surface and sub-surface plant matter, and disturbs all the little and microscopic flora and fauna in soils.
Sometimes that’s great. However, when matter gets minced to bits, it decomposes and disappears faster – decreasing the slow breakdown of matter and release of nutrients we see in healthy forests and meadows. It’s also not there to hold the soil together anymore or keep it covered and protected.
That soil then collapses under rains and traffic. In addition to losing the airflow, it’s losing the ability to move and store water – both because the pockets collapse and because there’s not enough organic matter to absorb moisture.
Tilling and compaction also disrupt the breeding and feeding of microorganisms we count on for healthy soils – like those worms.
It’s not greenie conjecture. We have seen this happen over and over, in ancient history, and recently enough for still and video photography to capture it.
We can buy and stockpile amendments and fertilizers and pest controls, set up worm bins for nutrients and castings and transplants, and keep burning fuels tilling and spreading them, or we can work even mech-driven systems that provide better support and healthier soils overall so we don’t need them.
Stop Stomping Soil
Even if we’re die-hard earth tillers, we can designate beds, and designate walkways/driving paths between them.
Ideally, there’s a thick enough pad in the access lanes (grass mats, mulches, etc.) to mitigate some of the pressure from walking and driving.
Either way, it creates little edge zones between them where healthy life can flourish, and depending on cover, the areas where we’re walking and not tilling also become breeding grounds for beneficial organisms and serve as water-slowing and nutrient holding zones our plants access later.
Our soil is just like human civilization with specialists and generalists performing tasks within society, and people who are healthiest when eating a wide variety of foods. The last two of our dirty dozen fill the roles of those workers and varied diets:
When the same thing is being taken out over and over again, soils end up depleted. In many cases, they can also harbor diseases that build up over time.
Rotating crops between areas and planting companions that provide some of their nutrient needs or disrupt disease cycles helps mitigate the problems.
Our soil then consumes the variety of textures, compounds, and nutrients those plants provide as they break down.
Companions also add to the diversity of habitat in our orchards and gardens, creating zones for feeding and breeding of beneficial insects and protection of the soil microbes from other insects, creating its own functional ecosystem.
Are you ready for Healthy Soil?
Soil is like a successful little village. It relies on all kinds of inputs and outputs – bakers, veggie and meat and grain producers, waste management, water management, roadways to transport everything back and forth, energy production, families that begat-begat future generations, somebody to police the bad guys, some shelter from changing seasons and oddball weather threats.
Like a village, our soil should be bustling with activity, with numerous shapes and sizes of earth and organic material and even insect life visible.
The more ways we feed and support that little community, the more our gardens and orchards will pay us back with bigger and better yields that take less work from us.