Do you ever wonder why your plants don’t grow well? Or just survive instead of thrive? Sowing seeds or plants into ‘dead dirt’ just won’t cut it if you want to grow a healthy garden! If you’re a beginner gardener, there are some basic principles to learn so you succeed every time.
Just like we thrive on a nutrient-dense diet in a stress-free environment, healthy plants need food and a happy home to live in too!
“If you meet the ‘needs’ of your plants, they will flourish, blossom and produce a bountiful harvest.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
- Getting ready to plant new season crops in an established garden?
- Planning to sow seeds in new soil?
- Trying to revitalize tired container gardens?
- Building a garden bed from scratch?
If so, then follow my three steps to boost your soil and help your garden thrive:
3 Steps to Prepare Your Garden for Planting
- Do a seasonal health check: Check your soil structure, soil pH, moisture, nutrients and organic matter.
- Restock the ‘pantry’: Add soil amendments and reuse ingredients you already have, where possible, to feed your soil.
- Add water and mulch: Before planting, give your plants access to soil nutrients and a protective mulch layer.
So let’s look at how you can APPLY these 3 steps.
1. SOIL HEALTH CHECK
One of the principles I garden by is:
“Don’t start planting until you ‘give back’ to the soil FIRST.” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
- It’s all about giving-and-taking: “What we sow, we reap.”
- I make regular ‘deposits’ to build my soil health, because it’s a valuable, long-term ‘asset’. Then, when plants ‘withdraw’ from that ‘nutrient bank’ in the soil, there’s still a healthy ‘balance’.
- Nature has an accounting system too! Don’t expect your plants to make endless ‘withdrawals’ on a daily basis and still have a full ‘soil bank account’ season after season. If your plants aren’t growing well, it’s highly likely your soil needs a nutrient top up!
- If your soil has poor structure, a pH imbalance or is depleted of nutrients, then there is no point trying to grow new plants until you fix those problems.
‘Bed and Breakfast’
Have you ever stayed at a B&B (or AirBnB)? Where you get to sleep in a comfy bed with breakfast to keep you well fed?
Whether you grow in containers or garden beds, it’s much the same. Plants like a suitable ‘bed’ and a meal thrown in! It’s a package deal. I don’t invite plant ‘guests’ into my garden, unless I have prepared for their arrival.
Let me share a scenario I’ve seen many times before:
… and then wait for them to grow. You water them.
But nothing is h-a-p-p-e-n-ing! Grrr … What are they w-a-i-t-i-n-g for?
- Does this sound familiar? I’ve watched lots of plants sit in protest with their arms folded, scowling at me as if to say: “What were you thinking? The last house guests ate all the food and you expect us to like this place!”
- Now you may be thinking it’s a little strange that I ‘listen’ to my plants, but I do! And for good reason: they have a ‘language’ of their own.
“The way my plants look and grow tells me a lot about whether I am a good ‘host’ or if I need to lift my act!” – Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener
- There have been times when I invited new plant ‘visitors’ into an unprepared garden ‘bed’ without making any effort to get their ‘room’ ready. Now some seedlings were tough cookies and could handle the No Frills welcome to their new abode. Others, however, were grouchy customers and made me learn a valuable lesson!
- Don’t waste your time being a lazy ‘host.’ Do it right and you won’t get plants stomping their feet in protest (getting sick; wilting from thirst or hunger; or worse – checking out as a ‘dried arrangement’ to escape the poor service)!
- Your plants will start growing well from day one and be low maintenance ‘guests’ in your garden, IF you welcome them with a nice ‘bed and meal’ on arrival.
- So, every season, I now ‘audit’ my garden and check out what kind of help my soil needs.
Making the ‘Bed’
I make my own seed raising mix and potting mixes. So I know exactly what ingredients are there for my plants. I avoid all chemically based bagged mixes that contain soil wetters etc. Instead, I add the nutrients plants need for complete health, microbes and moisture-hugging ingredients. Once you start making your own mixes, you’ll get much longer lasting results and healthier plants.
I’m happy to share my potting and seed raising mix recipes with you here and you can make lots of variations once you are confident with the basics.
How do you prepare your soil?
- FEEL your soil. That’s right – get a big handful and assess what the structure is like.
- TEST your soil pH. Generally for most edibles, you want it to be in the slightly acidic to neutral pH range of 6.0-7.0. Kits are cheap and a valuable investment.
- CHECK soil moisture. Use a moisture meter or dig down to see how well the soil ‘bed’ holds water. Your soil should hold 40-70% moisture. More than that and you don’t need to water. If soil moisture is <30%, your plants may start to show drought stress. This makes them more susceptible to pest and disease attack.
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- REFRESH soil food. When was the last time you added organic matter, rock minerals or soil amendments? If you have been growing plants in container gardens for a while, it’s likely they need more ‘food’. If it’s a new bed or pot, you can start fresh from scratch.
- ACTIVATE with microbes. Tiny critters in the soil food web – a diverse (and mainly invisible) living community – need to be present in your soil. They play a vital role helping to feed your plants.
2. RESTOCK THE ‘PANTRY’
- The soil is a bit like a Pantry. It has the capacity to store a bountiful supply of plant foods. If YOU have a fully-stocked kitchen cupboard, you can eat well and be healthy. BUT … if you keep taking food out without replacing it, one day you’ll be hungry and open the door to find it bare!
- It’s the same with your plants and the ‘food’ they access in your soil ‘pantry’, via their roots. If you don’t replace the nutrients regularly, one day they may go ‘hungry or thirsty’. Then plants get stressed and don’t grow or worse, have health problems (pests and disease) – just like we do!
- So the second step to prepare your garden for planting every season, is to add nutrients back e.g. rock minerals, seaweed/kelp, compost, worm castings, organic soil conditioners, compost/worm juice teas, composted manure, blood and bone, biochar and homemade DIY fertilisers. You can also revitalise old potting mix and reuse it.
- When the ‘soil pantry’ is full again, lastly follow Step 3 to prepare your garden for planting.
3. MOISTURE + MULCH
There’s one final step I follow with my soil and potting mix before planting:
- Ensure there’s enough moisture holding capacity + a thick ‘blanket’ of mulch as insulation.
- Before adding the mulch layer, make sure the soil mix is already moist. Otherwise, when you start watering, the mulch will soak it all up and your soil will still be dry!
- If your container garden soil is hydrophobic (repels water) it may help to completely submerge your pot in water. Remove when all the bubbles stop coming to the surface.
- A quick test is to water your pot. Then count the seconds before the drips run out the bottom. If they come out quickly, the soil is not holding moisture well, so you still have work to do!
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© Copyright Anne Gibson, The Micro Gardener 2016. https://themicrogardener.com. All rights reserved.
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