Gardens

Soil health – the ultimate guide

Soil health is vital to allowing plants to flourish – take care of it and it will provide all the nutrients, root support, oxygen and water your plants need

healthy soil in a garden planted with cottage garden planting looking towards house
(Image credit: Alamy)

Soil health should be the concern of everyone growing plants, fruit and vegetables in their backyard. Whatever your soil type, its health can always be improved through good management. In creating a healthy soil, how it functions – providing nutrients, oxygen, water and support to your plants' roots – will only benefit what you grow. 

To ensure good soil health, you need to identify your soil type to ensure that the management choices you make improve its structure and function. Moving forwards, soil health needs constant attention, whether through feeding or mulching, for example, so that you can continue to give your plants and backyard ideas the best chance of growing healthily. 

What do you mean by soil health?

Soil health, or to put it another way, 'soil quality', can be defined as soil's ability to provide a living, sustainable eco-system for plants and the animals, insects and organisms that live within it, and which, in turn, contribute to the soil's health. 

Good soil health will ensure that it provides the right nutrients for healthy plant growth, shelter and food for anything that dwells within it – from plant roots to insects to microbes – and water to see them through wet and dry periods.

Why is soil health important?

A healthy soil is vitally important to healthy plant growth. This includes everything from your lawn and shrubs, perennials and annuals, fruit and vegetables, which need the best conditions and diet, oxygen and water – just like we do – to live healthily. Good soil health won't just ensure they really flourish, but will also make them less likely to suffer from diseases and pest invasions, too.

What does a healthy soil look like?

A healthy soil has the following elements that even the most amateur of gardeners should be able to spot: 

  • A dark color: this shows that it has plenty of organic matter.
  • A crumbly texture: it should fall off plant roots when you take them out rather than cling to them. This is also a sign of the presence of organic matter.
  • Roots that spread: this shows plants are happy within the soil.
  • Earthworms and other beneficial insects: if soil is healthy worms are a great sign.

What are the four major components of healthy soil?

The four major components of a healthy soil are: 

Healthy pH

Soil pH measures the acidity of your backyard's soil. Ideally, to ensure plants can absorb the minerals they need, you want your soil to be as close to neutral pH as possible – and you can achieve this with some work. However, you may choose instead to pick plants that suit your soil's natural pH levels. This will cut down on work but will limit your planting options.

Texture and structure

Good soil should crumble – pull up weeds and if the soil falls off the roots, it is in good condition. This will rely on you working to correct and improve your soil type, and will include lots of organic matter. Organic matter, put simply, can be added with compost. This can be bought at nurseries, created in a compost heap or you can create your own in containers, borders and lawns with decomposed plant and animal tissue through permaculture gardening.

This doesn't just provide good texture and food for plants, but also improves your soil's ability to drain or absorb rainfall or water from the garden hose. It also improves your soil's aeration, and the soil's structure, which means roots are well supported.

Good water regulation

Boggy soil or soil that drains too freely won't suit every plant. Just like with pH levels, you may decide to only choose plants that love your soil's natural state – for example, plan a dry garden in dry Soil helps control where rain, snowmelt, and irrigation water goes. Water and dissolved solutes flow over the land or into and through the soil.

Plant and animal life

Healthy soil will allow plant and animal life to flourish. A quick look at some over-turned soil in your garden will tell you how diverse and productive it is, even to the naked eye.

How can we improve the health of soil?

To improve the health of soil, you could simply add organic matter or fertilizer regularly, and while this is the best way to improve soil health, this is far too simplistic an approach. Instead, follow these steps to ensure improved soil health:

  • Test your soil's pH – knowing whether it is alkaline, neutral or acidic will allow you to make the right choices to correct the balance.
  • Know your soil type – knowing whether your soil is clay, sandy, silty, peaty, chalky or loamy will similarly allow you to correct it properly first time around.
  • Add organic matter and compost – from spring through to fall, this is the number one way of improving soil health and you can't add too much – but you can add too little. Everything from store-bought fertilizer to home-made compost to weed-free grass clippings and even using coffee grounds in the garden can benefit your soil.
  • Aeration – healthy soil needs oxygenation, so avoid walking on flower beds or compacting soil in containers. Aerate lawns as well as borders – spike-soled shoes will work on lawns; good texture and organic matter are the best way of improving soil aeration.
  • No-dig gardening – turning the soil was something gardeners traditionally did once a year, but doing so can upset your soil's eco-system, so avoid turning and digging soil as much as you can. Instead, top up soil with organic matter as a 2in thick mulch and let worms and insects do the processing naturally.