Healthy Beginnings

Sustainable Soil Fertility for Healthy Gardening in Nevada

Spring has sprung and it’s about time we get back to gardening here in Northern Nevada. Yes, we know that we’re likely still in for that final freeze that always threatens our early starts. However, there’s plenty to do before we plant.

The love of gardening has always been about creating your own food and watching the fruits of your labor come from your own backyard to your table. Growing your own food let’s you know exactly where your food is coming from, how it is grown and making sure it is healthy and nutritious for you and your family (and occasionally even your neighbors and co-workers). Growing your own food is all about being sustainable!

In Nevada, the overall “growing” part of having your own garden is a little tougher due to our climate. We have a limited growing window that is always plagued with early and late frosts. We also face a challenge with the lack of biology and nutrition in Nevada soil. In this article, we’ll chat about a few issues and how you can sustainably overcome obstacles to grow a bountiful garden.

Healthy growing all starts with sustainable soils:

As we discussed in previous articles for Healthy Beginnings Magazine, achieving BIG and nutritious harvests start with what your plants and veggies are growing in, the soil. Nevada soil inherently lacks nutrition and biology. But, you can build nutrition and biology sustainably in your own backyard. For Nevada soil, this means you need patience and a little time. You do not want to over do it all at once. It is in our human nature to think, “If I put on loads of manure, woodchips, straw and other stuff all at once, this has to be good.” In reality, it’s not! Nevada soil does not have the “digestive capacity” to eat raw materials. You have to “pre-turn” the materials into “food” that our Nevada soil can eat and then provide nutrition directly to the plants. Think of Nevada soil as a fussy baby. You cannot give a baby a raw carrot to eat. You have to cook it, blend it and make it into baby food because they can only handle food that’s easy to consume and digest. Nevada soils are the same. Due to our arid climate and lack of biology, you need to give the soil “baby food.” The sustainable way of doing this is to give your soil small amounts of properly made compost that has been fully broken down by an approved composting program such as the US Compost Council Seal of Testing Assurance. This compost will have been digested by microbes first and put into a form your soil (and plants) can work with. Look to find quality compost made out of recycled materials from your own local area. If the compost is made from local ingredients, it will have a similar biological fingerprint to the native soil. If you are bringing in compost made from organic waste that is from an ecosystem far away (like another state), our soil may find it foreign and might not know what to do with it. Also, you need to watch out for cheap compost that may have harmful materials (like human waste). Many commercial composting companies are making “compost” from “biosolids” or sewage sludge. YUCK!

Let’s talk mineral nutrition:

As we discussed in previous articles, organic matter and compost only bring certain food to your soil which then goes on to feed your plants. To create sustainable nutrition for your soil that will then go into your food, you need to give the plants the “stuff” they crave. This is a buffet of minerals and nutrients that need to be added to the compost you apply to your garden. Plants crave calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, boron, iron, copper, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements. The bigger the buffet, the more choices you’re giving your plants. Look for quality compost that is also focusing on macro- and micro-nutrition to bring more overall nutrition to the soil that will then transfer to the plant.

It’s about building sustainable ecosystems:

Growing a healthy garden includes sustainable soil food through quality compost and long-term nutrition through minerals; however, it also revolves around building a sustainable gardening ecosystem. The goal is to create a garden that grows year after year without breaking the bank. After you build a solid soil foundation, it all comes down to how you garden to promote long-term soil nutrition and biology. One idea is the use of cover crops. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen and only 21 percent oxygen. Guess what? You have all the free nitrogen your garden could handle without having to buy any fertilizers. But how do you capture it? The answer is nitrogen-fixing crops. Cornell University has a whole database of information on cover crops, what to plant and when to plant them (http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu). Cover crops can “suppress weeds, protect soil from rain or runoff, improve soil aggregate stability, reduce surface crusting, add active organic matter to soil, break hardpan, fix nitrogen, scavenge soil nitrogen, and suppress soil diseases and pests.” Start using cover crops this year.

Don’t kill the worms!

Try out no-till or minimal tillage in your garden. The no. 1 reason for this is worms! Worms are the original composters that eat organic matter in your soil and excrete plant food. You want to build a worm population in your garden and if you rototill you are cutting up those little guys. Also, rototilling can oxidize the nutrients that are stored in your soil and they can evaporate into the atmosphere. Rather than rototill, try using a spading fork to gently break the soil up.

We’ve shared this information to help you create a more sustainable and nutritious garden this year for your family. Please reach out to us with any questions, tips or tricks at info@fullcirclecompost.com. We are always willing to do our part to help you grow happy, healthy and more sustainably this spring.