It does not need to be a complex matter, but it does take time and a few resources to get you started.
First let’s review the 4 basic soil types: sand, loam, clay and silt ~
loam: is known to contain a mixture of clay, loam, sand & organic matter.
Sand: is the largest particle in the soil. It is rough when rubbed together; it feels like sand paper, because it has sharp edges. There are not many nutrients in sand.
Silt: is the size and texture between sand and clay. It is smooth and powdery; it does not get sticky when wet like clay.
Clay: is considered the heaviest of the soils. It can contain a lot of nutrients, but due to its density it does not let air through (anaerobic). It also does not drain well, unless amended for aeration. Even though clay may be hard to work with, its high nutrient value makes it an excellent choice as a base for building upon.
Clay mix soil is what most of us in the East TN region deal with in our gardens, so we will be discussing building our soils with a clay base in this blog.
If you wish to have your soil tested first it will enhance this blog post and will give you a good idea of what you will need for amendments in your specific area. Inexpensive soil testing kits can be purchased at your local garden centers or local home improvement store, or ordered online.
About No-Till or No-Dig Gardening:
Here at Orchard Creek Farm we practice No-till gardening, it is much healthier for the soil microbes, protozoa, worms, etc..And can be easily built upon. I utilize several composting methods to achieve my goals and adhere to the NOP standards. We are talking about small to medium size gardens here in both open small fields and raised beds. The type of no-till farming practices in large agriculture circles will likely lead to soil compaction since they run heavy equipment across the earth and kill off the worms with herbicides. In contrast, no-till management in a backyard garden leads to rich, healthy soil that grows nutrient dense, high brix food. No-till gardening can be achieved in a variety of ways; raised beds, garden plots, containers, etc...If you haven't considered using the no-till method, I would encourage you to research its benefits and disadvantages for your specific growing needs and area.
The materials you choose will determine the length and temperature they must be composted to meet the National Organic Program (NOP) standards. For a composted product to qualify under the NOP, it must start with a carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio between 25:1 and 40:1 and be maintained at a temperature between 131 degrees F and 170 degrees F for 15 days, during this time the material must be turned a minimum of 5 times. If the composted material is made this way, the compost can be applied to crops with no restrictions.
The NOP is very specific about the use of manures. Composted manure is preferred, but if raw manure is applied, then the timing of application is critical. Where raw manures are used on land growing crops for human consumption, it must be applied within 120 days of harvest for crops where the edible portion touches the soil, or 90 days of harvest where the edible portion does not touch the soil..
If the compost consists of only plant materials, it is considered plant waste and there are no restrictions on timing.
How to Build Organic Soil for the No-Till Garden:
Choose your planting site that is free of tree stumps, shrubs, etc..., don't worry too much about short grass or weeds. Begin with layers of newspaper, cardboard, shredded junk mail on the bottom to create a base directly on your soil. Begin mulching the area on top of the base with mulch materials like; animal manures (if you can get them free of pesticides, herbicides and antibiotics), old straw, wood chips, pine needles, coffee grounds, wood ash & kitchen scraps. The idea is to get equal amounts of greens and browns, with the aim to get a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1, (this is what I personally aim for) Keep repeating this process until it is several inches thick (I prefer 6-12” for our area and let over winter), taking care to keep it moist, but not too wet. It will need several months, depending on depth and weather to decompose correctly and would then be ready for direct spring planting. Keep excellent records!
How to build soil for raised Beds:
In order to have the correct soil for raised beds try the layering method combined with either indigenous clay soil excavated from your yard or organic soil can be purchased at a materials company, or a local garden center. Use the same method above; cardboard or newspaper as initial base, then mulch material, then soil and repeat the process until beds are filled, keep moist not wet. Like a wrung out wash cloth is ideal.
How to build soil the conventional way:
Till the area you wish to plant, compost all your mulch materials in a compost bin or pile, they will take several weeks to decompose depending on air flow and moisture content. Again keep the pile moist, not too wet. When your mulch material smells like earth, is dark and it is finely composted till into your garden site. Create rows and plant.
Food For Thought- Did you know that GMO alfalfa, alfalfa meal and soybean meal is NOT PROHIBITED under the NOP?
Another interesting point is that, both bone meal and blood meal are also allowed under the NOP, even from NON-ORGANIC animals.
Organic farmers need to be careful with the materials they choose to compost for this reason.
Know your farmer, know your food!