Most people think about growing plants when starting a garden. Organic Growers School urges you to think about growing the soil. The soil in your garden will be the foundation of everything that happens, and the better you care for it, the better your garden will grow. The soil grows the plants, not you, so take care of your soil and it will take care of the rest.

The biggest thing to keep in mind when you endeavor to grow soil is to build organic matter. Organic matter is the ecologically-rich portion of soil that works all the magic. It’s sticky, holding nutrients and absorbing water, so that plants can thrive. If you’ve ever seen the dark, black soil of a well-tended garden, that’s the soil you’re striving for. Black soil = carbon. Carbon = organic matter.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Building soil organic matter is a slow, intentional process, so don’t get into a rush. It takes from 100 to 1000 years to form just one centimeter of soil organic matter. Think of growing your soil as an investment that you won’t regret.

Soil building is the work of the soil food web, which is the vast community of organisms that live and feed in the ground. Just one teaspoon of soil contains 100 million to one BILLION bacteria, and that doesn’t even include the protozoa, nematodes, mites, springtails, rotifers, tardigrades, insects, spiders, earthworms, snails, slugs, and even birds that make the soil food-web work. If you were thinking that all bacteria, mites, and nematodes were bad, gardening will introduce you to the truth of beneficial microorganisms. As you delve deeper and deeper into growing your soil, tending your garden, and living more organically, you will discover the incredibly important role that beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms play in our lives. Not just in our gardens, but also in our bodies, our water, and the air we breathe.

As you read through our garden management topics, you’ll come across information on lots of gardening practices that exist for the purpose of encouraging a thriving soil food web, and thereby building organic matter. This is probably your most noble charge as an organic gardener, so keep in mind the following good deeds in your garden repertoire:


Your use of these practices will vary, mostly based on the type of soil you have. A soil is classified by the ratios of three main soil particles in contains. The three soil particles are

  • Sand- the largest particle. Sandy soils are quick-draining and feel like, well, sand. Gritty and thin.
  • Silt- a mid-sized soil particle, usually derived from quartz or feldspar.
  • Clay- the smallest soil particle. Clay soils are common in Appalachia, and are characterized by dense, heavy texture.

No garden soil will be strictly sand, silt, or clay, but instead a combination of particles. Classifications like “clay loam” or “sandy loam” or “silty clay loam” are a few examples. All soils benefit from continual additions of compost and general building of organic matter, to increase aeration, water and nutrient absorption, and microbial life. Encouraging organic matter in your soil will improve the soil’s structure, resulting in nice, crumbly soil that will be easier to work, and will make your garden and landscape healthier and more resilient.

Ready to get started? Check out the links above on practices to build soil organic matter, and also check out our Ask Ruth article from February 2012 on Building Soil Quickly.

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Author: OGS

Organic Growers School is a non-profit organization providing organic education since 1993. Our mission is to inspire, educate, and support people in our region to farm, garden, and live organically.

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