Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: How to Keep Your Soil Healthy


Healthy soil is the foundation of a lush yard, a thriving garden and a lively ecosystem. It can reduce pests, improve plant disease resistance, reduce weeds and conserve water. However, healthy soil can’t be bought. It has to be built. You may be tempted just to add purchased topsoil to existing landscaping or gardens, but it will often wash away with heavy rains and will not work to create the natural cycle needed for perennial benefit. Truly healthy soil must be cultivated. Luckily, it’s easy to do and has dramatic benefits that you can see almost immediately.

Soil is an ecosystem comprised of organisms like bacteria, fungi, nematodes, insects and earthworms. To create a healthy soil system, you have to help build and restore nutrient cycles and balance with the microbiome.

Even a teaspoon of soil contains a complex system:

  • Bacteria and fungi use dead plant and animal tissue to create nutrients for plants.
  • Nematodes eat plants and order soil materials, releasing new nutrients for plants.
  • Mycorrhizal fungi bring critical nutrients to plants, and the plants provide the fungi with carbohydrates.
  • Worms and other insects break organic material down into smaller bits for bacteria and fungi.
  • Earthworms create pathways in the soil that fill with water and air for plants.

This healthy ecosystem gives plants access to air, water and nutrients, which, in turn, benefits pollinators, herbivores, birds and other animals up the food chain.

Healthy soil has the following:

  • Stable pH
  • Good soil structure
  • Ability to hold and release nutrients
  • Level of organic matter
  • Biodiversity of soil life

“Healthy soil is the basis for your landscaping. You’re always building soil. The microorganisms help to build a healthy soil structure. They do things to benefit the soil during their lifecycle that we can’t recreate,” says Lauren Adelman Davis, Landscape Designer at Cross Creek Nursery.

To start building healthy soil in your yard, get a soil test kit. They’re made to help identify your soil pH.  Next, hold a handful of soil to measure its structure and visibly inspect for insects and other life. Once you’ve got a sense of your soil’s health, use the tips below to help build up your soil system.

Avoid Chemicals

Photo: Pixabay

Herbicides, weedicides, pesticides and fungicides are all damaging to the natural biome. Using them, even in your above-ground garden, can have lasting damaging effects on your soil’s health. While it may take longer to see results, tossing the chemicals in favor of working to build a healthy soil system will make maintaining a healthy garden or landscape much easier in the long run.

“Instead of chemicals, we recommend that people mulch garden beds. It really helps keep weed growth to a minimum. Two to three inches of mulch prevents weeds and retains moisture. We also recommend an organic herbicide made from cornhusks. For weed removal, we often recommend or use a weed torch to burn out the weed,” says Adelman Davis.

Aerate, Don’t Dig

Photo: Image by Dean Moriarty from Pixabay

One of the quickest ways to introduce weeds into your garden is by digging or moving soil frequently. Soil works best when it’s left alone. Similarly, mowing or working with wet soil can waterlog and compact it, causing damage.

It’s best to use a garden fork to gently aerate soil in your garden or on your lawn. Think of your soil as a house for all of the hardworking microorganisms. The more you disturb it, the more you’re damaging their shelter.

Add Organic Matter    

Photo: Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay

Organic matter is food for all kinds of soil life. Proactively adding some organic matter to your lawn and garden gives your soil more nutrients to distribute. Layering organic matter on top of your soil creates new habitat for soil organisms.

Consider adding:

  • Grass clippings
  • Leaves
  • Coffee grounds
  • Manures
  • Kitchen food scraps like eggshells and waste from vegetables

“Adding organic matter is hugely beneficial. We recommend a product called Biotone that inoculates soil with microorganisms and nutritious organic matter,” explains Adelman Davis.

Maintain Moisture            

Photo: Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Too little moisture and your soil will become dry, dead dirt. Too much moisture and it will become waterlogged, drowning beneficial microbes. When working on build your healthy soil system, focus on creating consistent soil moisture. You can easily check soil moisture by putting a chopstick or small wooden dowel into it. If the stick comes out slightly darkened or a little wet, your soil is perfectly moist.

“We take creating a healthy landscape into our design process. For example, many homeowners want to remove existing sandy soil or clay, but we recommend the opposite. Clay is hugely beneficial and retains moisture. Instead, we work to condition the existing soil and make it healthier,” says Adelman Davis.

Happy soil means a happy garden or yard. Over time, your soil system can become more and more self-sufficient. Healthy soil not only boosts your curb appeal, but it also helps support your local ecosystem, a total win-win.