When I first started my garden years ago I can honestly say it was definitely dead dirt. Nothing living in it at all except the local gopher. Not even a worm. Soil should have life and lots of life to it to make healthy plants. It all starts with the soil. From the ground up. One thing I have always have said is “Feed the earth that feeds the plants that feed you”. Healthy soil wards off diseases and insects. When the plants are healthy they have less chance of becoming weak and diseased. Just like us human beings. Insects will always go to the weak plants first. Healthy soil means that organisms in the soil are present and doing their job to support the growth of plants. There is microscopic life performing its own function in the soil food web. There is good bacteria, which requires oxygen to survive while the disease-causing bacteria thrive on low-oxygen. Makes since! Think about compacted soils verses loose loamy soils. This was my story when I first started my garden. Believe it or not good soil contains Fungi, microorganisms that help hold soil particles together and improve soil structure. These little buggers consume things like pine needles, branches and leaves. Larger hard to break down materials. So you can see that having both these good guys are more than valuable they are essential. Nematodes are something else in the soil you may not associate with as being good. Most people think of root-feeding nematodes that cause havoc while the beneficial nematodes help protect the roots from disease and build soil structure.
So this brings me to Organic Fertilizer vs. Synthetic. Natural or synthesized. While many people have had success with synthetic, overtime they are destroying your soil. Killing off any good microorganisms, not to mention run off and leaching into our water tables. Synthetics do not feed the living organisms while organic soil amendments and fertilizers do. synthetic chemicals leave your plants without beneficial life which is their support system! Yes, organic is bulkier, but in the long run your soil, plants and your body will thank you! synthetic is a quick fix, but is it? The chances of burning are higher. The salt content is higher. Organic fertilizer is a slow release and gives gardeners a litter more leeway to make mistakes without seriously harming the soil or plants.
If you are starting a new garden spot, you need to know your soil. Is it clay or sand? Loamy? Silt? But what ever you have the very first thing I would add is compost. Not just a little compost, but a lot of compost. Every time you plant! Every Time! Make sure your compost is truly composted. Sometimes people think that compost means just manure. Don’t think that this is compost. It is raw material that will take time to break down. If added and then planted right away it can burn new plants and seeds may not germinate. Raw material will also rob your soil of nitrogen. I like a well-rounded compost made from more than just manure. Add peat moss or coconut coir, depending on your pH. High pH, add peat. Low pH add coconut coir. If your soil is sandy add some vermiculite to help hold the water. If it is clay, add perlite to open up the soil for better drainage and help the good bacteria. These three things, peat moss, vermiculite or perlite and compost can be used for raised beds, but make sure you add some good old dirt to the pile. I really have seen much better results when you add your native soil to the mix. Peat will last for 4 years in the soil and vermiculite and perlite will last for 5-7 years. Another important soil amendment that you shouldn’t forget is Greensand. Greensand supplies no organic matter, but it helps loosen clay soils, improves water and nutrient retention in sandy soils, and is a rich source of potassium and micro-nutrients. I put it in my soil every spring when preparing my garden beds. As far as working the beds with a tiller I am all for it! BUT, please don’t pulverize your soil. Less is more in this case. I like to work my amendments into the existing soil, but not overwork it. It really isn’t good for the worm life. I use a small tiller in my raised beds and the tines only go 8-10 inches deep, so every 3 or 4 years I deep dig (great cardio exercise) with a shovel below the point of where the tines go. The soil gets somewhat of a hard-pan that isn’t healthy for your plants. Add organic fertilizers to the needs of your plants. I suggest to use less more often then loads less often. The plant will react better and will be healthier if you do it this way.
There are so many things you can add to your soil to help improve its structure and tilth. Weed free straw, leaves, leaf mold, cotton burr compost, shredded pine needles and so many more things. I like to add these in the fall so they have time to break down through the winter. Work them into the soil. Another thing that some people really like and I use it as well, but I always compost it first is shredded tree branches. If it hasn’t been composted first it will inhibit seed germination and seriously rob your soil of nitrogen.
There are a few amendments to really feed your micro organisms if you want to get them really active: Crab Meal, Neem Seed Meal, Karanja Seed Meal, and Alfalfa Meal. These are great in the compost pile too for basically the same effect.