Healthy soil is the key to successful gardening

No matter what your gardening passion - lawn, flowers, or vegetables - all types of gardening come down to one thing. And that is soil. No matter what you want to grow the one thing you need is healthy soil. To get healthy soil you need to feed your dirt, or to be more accurate you need to feed your microbes and earthworms.

Science has gradually learned if we want to get our best yields from our gardens, we must recognize our soil has a vibrant but delicate ecosystem feeding off of the organic matter in the soil. Tilling disrupts this balance and can cause organic matter to be lost, nutrients to be under utilized, and mircrobe levels to be unbalanced.

So, what should a home gardener who is used to tilling do? It sounds crazy, but the simple answer is to stop tilling. Wait a second. What was that? Yes, I did recommend we stop tilling.

I know it sounds crazy and a clean, weed-free bed is a beautiful. But, I'd rather have a highly productive garden than a clean, weed-free bed. So, here's how you stop tilling and have a weed-free garden bed.

The first thing you have to do is manually dig out any perennial weeds, lay a 1 to 2 inch layer of compost on top of the soil, and then use a smothering mulch to help prevent any new weed seeds from germinating. Grass clippings and leaves are great smothering mulches.

Every year simply add another layer of compost and continue to use mulch. The microbes in the soil will further break down the compost and the organic mulch. The earthworms, microbes, and rain water will wash the nutrients and the organic material down to the plant's roots.

One of the most important components to no-till gardening is keeping the weeds from establishing. If you see a weed, pull it prior to the plant setting new seeds. The first year will be the hardest, but through the use of mulch, not disturbing the seed bed, and hand-pulling the number of weeds will drastically be reduced.

And, with any new gardening venture one of the best rules of thumb is to start small. Begin with a small area and experiment to find your favorite methods. If it does seem strange at first, do preserve. The rewards are significant.

Anne Lenox Barlow is the horticulture educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Clinton County. CCE offices may be reached in Clinton County at 561-7450; Essex County, 962-4810; and Franklin County, 483-7403. E-mail your questions to askMG@cornell.edu.

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