How to Restore Exhausted Soil

Plants exact a fee from the soil’ structure and make-up. They consume nutrients as they grow. Eventually, after a few years, even the best of soils will begin to break down. When years of gardening – or plain neglect – exhausts a soil’s nutrients, it loses the vitality required to support life.

Spent soil will produce successively lower, frailer crop yields. The most visible indicator of this change is the increasingly stubborn presence of weeds. Weeds are nature’s repair crew.

When soil is depleted, dandelions move in to help break up compacted soil with their roots. Clover, hairy vetch, and black medic will invade a dying vegetable patch to add healthy, slow-release nitrogen to the soil.

When years of gardening - or plain neglect - exhausts a soil's nutrients, it loses the vitality required to support life.
When years of gardening – or plain neglect – exhausts a soil’s nutrients, it loses the vitality required to support life.

Restoring Exhausted Soil

You can help the soil restoration process, as well. But you should not expect results right away.  We’re not talking about heaping on generous amounts of synthetic fertilizers. Those are temporary fixes. Even worse, they will leave your soil weaker, more unstable, and full of excess salts and chemicals.

Nature doesn’t like big changes. That’s why many of the expensive, synthetic quick fixes in gardening are unsustainable. The smart, slow, sustainable way to restore soil fertility will actually save you money!

Spent soil will produce successively lower, frailer crop yields.
Spent soil will produce successively lower, frailer crop yields. (Photo: R. A. Nonenmacher/Flickr)

1. Clear the area.

The first job is to cut brush and unwanted plants back to the fence line. Do this before any unwanted plants get the soil acclimated for the cycle to follow. Each plant is part of that cycle and prepares the soil for the next stage. Catching it before the soil is significantly altered already wins you half the battle.

The first job is to cut brush and unwanted plants back to the fence line.
The first job is to cut brush and unwanted plants back to the fence line.

Start a compost pile.

Instead of sending grass clippings and leaves to the landfill, use them to build a compost pile. You can add compostable material such as kitchen scraps and old newspapers to the pile as you go. If you don’t like turning compost, just heap it in an out-of-the-way corner and let it sit until the following year.

Start a compost heap.
Instead of sending grass clippings and leaves to the landfill, use them to build a compost pile. (Photo: Allispossible UK/Flickr)

Aerate the soil.

Plants breathe. They draw almost all of their oxygen requirements through their roots. That’s part of the reason why you need well-aerated soil to grow a healthy crop. Aeration also helps break up compacted material in soil, allowing oxygen and water into its structure. This encourages bacteria, worms, and decomposition.

You can aerate the soil with a powered-aerator, a manual hand aerator, or with a simple, no-frills digging fork. If you are working with clay, you should aerate the soil twice a year.

You can aerate the soil with a powered-aerator, a manual hand aerator, or with a simple, no-frills digging fork.
You can aerate the soil with a powered-aerator, a manual hand aerator, or with a simple, no-frills digging fork.

Plant cover crops.

Once you’ve cleared the ground, built your compost pile, and aerated the soil, you can begin planting cover crops. Cover crops – or “green manure” – are crops grown specifically to be turned back into the soil. Their primary purpose is to replenish valuable nutrients and organic matter.

Cover crops - or “green manure” - are crops grown specifically to be turned back into the soil.
Cover crops – or “green manure” – are crops grown specifically to be turned back into the soil.

Rye and hairy vetch are popular green manure crops. When cover crops are young, vibrant, and bright green, they are at their absolute height of nutritional value.

Others that enrich the soil include cowpeas, mustard, oats, alfalfa, clover, winter peas, and timothy. The legumes return nitrogen to the soil along with organic material. They are an excellent choice for long-term soil development.

When cover crops are young, vibrant, and bright green, they are at their absolute height of nutritional value.
When cover crops are young, vibrant, and bright green, they are at their absolute height of nutritional value.

Winter rye is good to plant in the fall. You should turn a crop winter of rye over three weeks before spring planting. White clover is good for bees if you let it flower before turning. Alfalfa is expensive but its deep roots will do wonders for your soil.

An Essential Practice

That’s all you can do for the first year. Depending on the level of nutritive depletion, you may have repeat the soil restoration process for a couple of years. You can turn solid clay or sand into a flourishing, sustainable garden if you have the patience and are willing to do the work.

Soil restoration is an essential practice on every scale – from sprawling commercial farms to the backyard garden. Cover crops – green manure – simply work for that purpose. They have kept soils healthy and alive for farmers and gardeners for thousands of years. They help your plants thrive – and they are 100 percent natural.

That’s important. Because – no matter how perfectly it rains, or how much sunshine your garden gets – your garden can only grow as good as the soil that nourishes them.

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