Healthy soil is full of life in the form of a myriad of organisms, nutrients, and microbes that support plant growth. When garden soil lacks these elements, it becomes lifeless. Typically, dead soil will also have a poor soil structure, and low fertility, and will lack the vibrant ecosystem found in healthy soil.
Reviving dead garden soil requires intervention to revitalize and improve the quality of the soil. You will need to test the soil to determine its nutrient content and pH level. Then you can add vital organic matter and balance the nutrient levels of the soil. Just be aware that improving the soil quality of dead soil is a long-term process and there’s no quick, easy fix.
Can you revive dead garden soil?
Reviving dead garden soil is possible, but it takes effort, and you will need to use proven techniques. First, you need to understand why your soil is “dead” and then you can get started in reviving it.
Testing the soil will give you considerable guidance on what is lacking in the soil. You will need to take this into account when you decide on soil treatment and attempt to revive the soil.
There are a few proven methods that you can use to get the process started. Generally, organic matter is a key solution.
You should also use organic mulch to help conserve moisture, regulate soil temperature, and suppress weed growth. Gradually the mulch will break down and improve the quality of the soil.
Another key solution is to practice no-digging gardening to prevent disrupting the structure of the soil. Rather lay the organic matter on top of the soil, and allow it to decompose naturally and improve garden soil over time.
Remember, this is going to be a slow process. But if you are patient and provide consistent care, you will be able to revive dead garden soil.
Reasons why your garden soil dies
Soil degradation is often a cumulative effect of several factors rather than a single cause. By understanding these reasons, you can take appropriate measures to prevent soil degradation and implement strategies to improve and maintain the health of your garden soil.
If you ignore what is required for healthy soil, there’s a good chance that you’re going to end up with dying plants, leafless trees, and a dead lawn. So, let’s look at what can go wrong.
Nutrients become depleted
Whatever you are growing in your garden, flowers, grass, trees, vegetables, or plants chosen for landscaping reasons, if you don’t replenish the nutrients in the soil you are probably going to kill it. Plants extract nutrients from the soil as they grow, and if these nutrients are not replaced, the soil becomes deficient, leading to poor plant growth.
Too little organic matter
Organic matter is essential for any garden soil to be healthy. Often people think they can save money by not adding compost and other organic matter to their gardens. Wrong!
Organic matter provides essential nutrients, improves soil structure, and enhances its water-holding capacity. If you don’t add organic matter regularly, your garden soil will continue to lose its fertility over time.
There’s a pH imbalance
Most people only think about pH when they own a swimming pool and know they need to balance the water in the pool. But when there’s a pH imbalance in your garden soil, you can end up with major problems.
Soil pH measures the acidity or alkalinity of the soil and it plays a crucial role in nutrient availability. Acidic soil with a low pH can lead to deficiencies in nutrients like calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, while alkaline soil with a high pH can restrict the availability of micronutrients like iron and zinc.
Soil structure deteriorates
The structure of the soil is basically the arrangement of soil particles and spaces between them. Too much foot traffic and bad gardening practices can result in it becoming compacted. When this happens, it loses its natural structure, reducing essential air and water circulation.
Soil erosion happens when wind or water washes the top layer of soil away. Factors like heavy rainfall, inadequate soil cover, steep slopes, and improper drainage can contribute to erosion.
Flat garden areas may not be affected. But where there is soil erosion, topsoil that is generally rich in nutrients and organic matter, will be lost.
Chemicals contaminate the soil
Toxic substances harm soil health and can eventually kill the soil. The problem is that chemicals can accumulate in the soil over time, disrupting the natural balance of microorganisms and beneficial soil life.
Chemicals can also affect plant roots directly, inhibiting growth and nutrient uptake. Be very careful when you think about using chemicals, including pesticides and herbicides.
Too few soil microorganisms
Healthy soil is teeming with all kinds of microorganisms including nematodes, fungi, bacteria, and earthworms. You might not be aware of them, but they constantly contribute positively to nutrient cycling, decomposition of organic matter, and overall soil health.
How to revive your dead garden soil
You will know you have much dead soil in your garden if you have dying plants and dead grass. You could just chuck organic matter into your beds, but you’re more likely to succeed if you take a systematic approach.
Trying to save money today is not a wise approach. It’s not going to cost a lot to test your soil, and it’ll give you a good idea of what you need to do to revive your dead soil.
If you’re trying to avoid spending money today, you can opt for a relatively inexpensive soil testing kit. But a better solution is to send a soil sample to your local agricultural extension office or a professional laboratory for analysis.
University extensions usually have soil testing labs, and as the University of Minnesota Extension says, they will tell you what nutrients you need to add to your soil. Most will also advise you on specific nutrients depending on what you plan to plant, including home lawns, flower and vegetable gardens, ornamental and fruit trees, and shrubs.
Once you know what you need, you can supplement your dead soil with suitable organic fertilizers. They will provide slow-release nutrients and promote soil health, helping to revive soil effectively.
Work well-rotted compost, aged manure, leaf mold, or other organic materials into the soil. Spread a thin layer of organic matter over the soil surface and use a garden fork or tiller to blend it into the top few inches of soil.
Apply a layer of organic mulch, like wood chips, straw, or shredded leaves, on top of the soil. This will help retain moisture, suppress weed growth, and gradually enrich the soil as the mulch breaks down over time.
Avoid overwatering because this can lead to soil compaction, nutrient leaching, and poor root health. Water your plants as needed, monitor soil moisture levels, and adjust irrigation accordingly.
Other ways you can revive your dead garden soil
There are various other ways that you can revive dead garden soil, for example, by vermicomposting.
This involves using earthworms to break down organic waste materials into nutrient-rich compost. Adding vermicompost to your garden soil can improve its fertility and microbial activity.
If the pH of your soil is very acidic or alkaline, it’s a good idea to adjust it. Adding lime to acidic soil raises the pH, while elemental sulfur or acidic amendments lower the pH of alkaline soil.
A more complicated solution is to use mycorrhizal inoculants to revive soil that has literally died. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, improving nutrient uptake, boosting soil health, and enhancing plant growth.
How to prevent your garden soil from dying
Healthy soil is the foundation of any healthy garden. The nutrients in the soil feed your plants, trees, and lawn, so it’s important to get this right when you establish a garden.
In its online publication, Gardening for Soil Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service details five simple principles for soil health. If you embrace these principles, you will prevent your garden soil from dying:
- Armor the soil.
Soil armor is a residue that covers the soil, like dead leaves or grass cuttings, or mulch that you bring in. It reduces water loss and erosion, decreases soil temperature, and eventually nourishes the soil.
- Eliminate or minimize soil disturbance.
Excessive tilling and soil disturbance disrupts the structure of the soil and harms beneficial soil organisms. When you till soil it breaks the soil aggregates down and the pore spaces that contain air break down.
This, in turn, decreases the potential of the soil to store water and makes it more susceptible to erosion. It also destroys microorganisms that provide food and water to plants, particularly mycorrhizal fungi.
- Grow a diverse range of plants. This isn’t difficult, even if you want to only grow indigenous species in your backyard.
- Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible.
Living roots in the soil help to keep it alive. This doesn’t mean you need to leave the roots of plants from the previous season in the ground. Rather, it means you should continue to plant new crops or annuals to keep your garden growing and living.
- Incorporate livestock wherever you can, though this is easier for homesteaders than average suburban gardeners.
Soil degradation is usually a cumulative process caused by a combination of factors. If you follow the steps we have outlined, you can gradually revive your dead garden soil and create a healthier environment for your plants to thrive.