What is Soil Amending?
And is it Essential for a Successful Garden?
We spend a lot of time here at Urban Leaf talking about seeds, germination, and how to grow your seedlings so that they sprout, but what about the basics? Aka, soil. Having great soil for your plants is step one for a successful harvest. As we tend to focus more on the seed and harvest part of indoor gardening, we turned to Bre, aka @plantgirl_50, for some expert advice on the soil subject. She is a mom to humans, animals, AND plants, and though she moved through a few career fields, she has now found her true passion in Botany, Horticulture and Mycology. We gained a lot of insight through chatting with her and her experiences and are excited to share. So sit back, relax, and get ready to “dig in.”
What IS Soil Amending Anyway?
The term “amending soil” may be new to you, and that is okay! It’s really just a fancy way of saying adding, or making changes to your soil in order to make it more suitable for growing plants. Soil amendments can be organic or inorganic products that are added directly to the soil of your garden or into a potting media. Bre identifies potting media as the mixture of one or more ingredients used to plant in a container. “Soil is the top layer of earth, or “garden soil.”
Why would you amend, or make changes to your soil? The most common reasons are to correct porosity, drainage, pH levels, or simply overall texture.
Bre has some awesome resources for learning more about these amendments on her Youtube Soil Series.
When Should I Improve My Garden Soil With Amendments?
We know what you’re thinking: “I bought my soil from [insert appropriate landscaping or hardware store here]. Isn’t it already filled with the nutrients I need?” Yes, but it won’t be forever. For instance, it’s a good idea to repot indoor plants in the spring or summer. That is the optimal time to add amendments but they can also be added anytime you are planting, replanting, or repotting a garden bed or potted plant.
Bre also recommends changing the soil if a plant is struggling due to light conditions or water schedule, and pests are not the cause. Note that different plants require different soil conditions, which should be taken into consideration.
Do I Need Any Tools for my Soil Amendments?
Luckily for you, all you really “need” is your hands! Bre mentions that there are, however, a few tools that can make the process easier, such as a shovel and rake to fully incorporate the mixture. “For indoor pots,” Bre says, “a small hand shovel or scoop and a mixing vessel of some kind make premixing and scooping the potting mix a bit easier.”
She brings up a great point, and we agree, that sometimes we like to make things more complicated than necessary and think specialized tools are needed, when really, we can use the items we have lying around the house to accomplish these tasks. Not to mention, you can just nix the tools and use your hands to play in the dirt and mix it up yourself. (A great de-stressor if you ask us).
Understand Your Soil
Now that we understand what amending soil means and how to get started, let’s talk about the optimal conditions and requirements for great soil.
What Is Soil pH?
Soil pH is extremely important to a plant’s health, as it influences several soil factors affecting plant growth, including soil bacteria, nutrient leaching, nutrient availability, toxic elements, and soil structure. It must be the perfect balance of acidic and alkaline so that the plant can absorb the essential nutrients it needs to thrive. Most say, and Bre agrees, that the optimal pH for a vegetable garden is 6.5 You can use a soil testing kit to test your soil if you’re unsure. If your soil contains imbalances, amending the soil can be one way to correct this.
What Is Soil Texture?
In general, light chunky soil with good aeration is ideal for indoor potting media. Rich soil with aeration is ideal for outdoors. Again, good aeration and drainage lead to healthy roots and plants. We do not often think about it, but roots need oxygen. That is why I continually emphasize drainage and aeration because they really are essential qualities in any potting media. No amount of nutrients will make up for dense compact soil that is suffocating the plant roots.
Indoor pots drain differently than outdoor pots or garden beds. It is important to remember that indoors we are lacking many elements that help with plant growth and water absorption outdoors, which is another reason to be mindful when amending our indoor potting media.
Which Organic Matter Is Best For Your Soil?
Manure (Animal-Based Amendment)
If you live on lots of land and have animals, you can use livestock manure as a slow-release fertilizer. It contains many elements required for plant growth, such as nitrogen and others. It also conditions the soil and increases moisture retention. **Make sure the manure comes from any livestock animals, NOT dogs or cats. This is not recommended for indoor plants.
Worm Compost (Animal-Based Amendment)
This is Bre’s personal favorite. She mentions that they “supply ideal nutrients, help repel pests, and prevent diseases among many other benefits.
Plant Compost (Plant-Based Amendment)
Regular compost is another great addition to your garden. Homemade compost made from food scraps and yard waste is an inexpensive, slow-release fertilizer and soil conditioner for the garden. Make sure your compost is completely decomposed because the biological activity in compost that is still decomposing can compete with crops for nutrients, which can reduce germination rates.
As far as fertilizers go, there are 17 main nutrients that plants need. More information on the best kinds of fertilizer to use for both indoor and outdoor plants can be found on our blog all about fertilizers.
You can absolutely practice amending soil in your indoor garden. Bre mentions that no matter what potting mix she starts with for indoor plants, she ALWAYS adds something to help with drainage and aeration at a minimum.
“I think the number one cause of death in houseplants is over watering. Something that helps prevent this problem is to always add perlite or pumice (or both) to any potting mixture. Beyond that my favorites to recommend are orchid bark or coco husk, horticulture charcoal, and worm castings.”
When it comes to herbs, you can pretty much guarantee success with good drainage and potting mix. “With herbs, as with any plant, it is important to know the native conditions of the plants. Mimicking the plant’s native environment will further their chances for success. For example, Rosemary, Lavender and Bay are woody plants native to the Mediterranean and prefer a gritty, sharply-draining soil. Giving them adequate drainage will help prevent root rot and other diseases. On the flip side herbs like mint, bergamot, and lemon balm prefer very moist conditions.”
Green Thumbs For All
Now that you’ve learned all about amending soil, and your head is spinning, the most important thing to remember is to have fun with this, as Bre highlights!
“Remember to have fun with it, experiment and always follow your intuition, it’s usually pretty accurate. Start slow, you don’t have to go out and buy all the amendments at once, take it one or two at a time and go from there. Always feel free to reach out for help if you need it. The plant and garden community is filled with wonderful people who love to talk plants and help each other out! Too often, people will try gardening or keeping houseplants and fail, then give up saying that they “just don’t have a green thumb.” Just like I used to say too.
I would say to my mom “I wish I had your green thumb” and she would always respond “there is no such thing as a green thumb, only a dirty one!” Now looking back I realize how true that is!
Bre echoes something that we always remind our community: “there are no failures, only lessons learned!” And she is right. Always a learning opportunity when it comes to gardening and growing your own food.