Raised Bed Soil Fertility

Garden Q & A

Question –

How do you improve or maintain soil fertility in raised beds?

“I need guidance on how to get the soil in my new raised beds to be optimal for growing vegetables. We just filled them with 2 yards of compost and 1 yard of 3-way mix.”

“This past season had poor results. My carrots did not form, and zucchini failed to thrive. Radishes didn’t even produce. Pretty much a total loss. I’m at a loss to understand what happened short of poor soil quality or lack of beneficials.”

Answer –

Soil is the foundation — literally — of your garden, and healthy, fertile soil does many things. It stores nutrients, retains moisture and oxygen for the roots, and supports an incredible diversity of soil organisms, critical to supplying the exact nutrients to the roots at the right time.

Raised bed gardening offers essential advantages to the gardener and the plants. Smaller than traditional in-ground gardens, raised beds are more accessible to plant, tend, harvest, and care for. Their smaller size makes it easier to maintain and improve soil fertility since you’re not trying to improve several hundred square feet all at once.

There are five fundamental principles to improve your soil health — regardless of the size or shape of your garden.

  1. Armor the soil
  2. Minimize or eliminate soil disturbance (below the top two inches)
  3. Grow a diversity of plants
  4. Keep living roots in the soil as long as possible
  5. Incorporate livestock (organisms) wherever possible

Please don’t feel overwhelmed — this is easier than you might think, as I’ll show at the end.

Keep the last point in mind as we go through the first four!

Soil Armor

Soil armor, stated differently, is simply a mulch to cover and protect the soil’s surface. Nature detests bare ground, constantly trying to cover it with weeds. Using mulch like wood chips, cover crop residue, hay, straw, or leaf litter reduces soil moisture loss and erosion. It moderates soil temperature, making a friendlier environment for the soil organisms.

Minimize Soil Disturbance

The soil is the habitat for soil biology, and deep tilling or turning the soil over severely disrupts the specific environment they need to live. For instance, mycorrhizal fungi extend throughout healthy soil, bringing food, minerals, and moisture to plant roots with its web-like threads. Many soil organisms can only live in a specific zone or depth of soil, and tilling displaces them.

Healthy soil consists of open spaces between soil particles that contain air and moisture. Tilling destroys this balance, forcing the communities to regrow; the open spaces in the soil collapse, compacting the soil while decreasing air and water infiltration and increasing wind and water erosion.

Plant Diversity

We need a variety of food for our health, and our gardens are no exception. They thrive with different plants supporting diverse soil organisms, creating an abundance of nutrients, air, and moisture reserves, resulting in healthier, more productive crops.

Cover crops are excellent for increasing root diversity that feeds multiple species of soil organisms, as are rotating crops, intercropping, or companion planting with herbs and flowers among the vegetables.

Keep Living Roots in the Soil

Living roots release plant sugars to feed the soil microbes and mycorrhizal fungi in exchange for soil nutrients that are often out of reach of the roots. If there are no living roots in the soil, there is no food for the soil biology. Most of us can’t grow in our gardens year-round, but fall cover crops and cold-hardy early spring vegetables like peas, lettuce, spinach, and cabbage will bridge the no-root gap during the winter.

Incorporate Livestock

Did you remember this point as you read the first four principles?

Livestock doesn’t only mean animals; it includes the organisms in the soil.

There is a saying in full-scale regenerative agriculture — “Responsible farmers are ranchers of the soil.” Multiple millions of species and billions of organisms live below the soil’s surface; caring for those organisms is an ongoing process, not a one-and-done box on a checklist.

Take Action

This may seem like a lot to improve your soil, but you don’t have to do all the steps to see change. Start with the first step, and you’ll see improvement. Combine two or three; you might be startled at how much fertility returns to your soil.

If you want to dig deeper, an excellent book on building soil fertility is “Grow Your Soil!” by Diane Miessler. It’s an easy read, written like you’re building a home for the soil organisms.