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Rae Punzel: Improving soil health

Rae Punzel: Improving soil health


One of the very first things I learned when I started my horticulture adventure was that soil and dirt are two very different things. Soil is where we plant our favorite perennials, vegetables, houseplants, fruit trees, cover crops and annuals. Dirt, on the other hand, is what we find on the bottom of our shoes, in our vacuum cleaners and on our vehicles.

Oddly enough, the same exact potting soil you use for your favorite houseplant becomes dirt when it is mistakenly relocated to the carpet.

We don’t really worry about improving our dirt — we simply want to eliminate it. Soil, on the other hand, is precious and the healthier it is, the better our “harvests” will fare. Whether the goal is to grow a bumper crop of organic produce or a landscape full of flowers, the importance of soil health is the same.

Starting with a soil test is advantageous to discover your type of soil and what deficiencies it might have, but there are also some general things that can be done starting today.

Soil needs to breathe to be healthy. A broad fork will loosen compacted soil, allowing water and air to flow with little damage to the soil structure or the microorganisms living there. Tilling is not the same. Tilling damages soil structure significantly and should be avoided whenever possible. It also brings weed seeds up to the surface where they can grow and flourish.

Leave old plant roots in the ground unless they are diseased or have become invasive. The root systems become wonderful organic matter as they decompose.

Mulch, mulch, mulch! While frequent refreshes of wood chip mulch can become tedious, every single layer of good mulch improves the soil’s health. That means the shredded leaves in the fall, as well; piling them on nice and thick is like gold for your soil — and the things you will grow in it.

Adding a rich compost to the garden is like giving your soil a continuous supply of food. Just remember, compost (whether made from food scraps or manure) needs to be done “cooking” before applying to the soil. Aerated compost tea is filled with microorganisms like aerobic bacteria, nematodes, protozoa and fungi that are incredibly beneficial to your soil.

Coffee grounds, teabags and eggshells are all wonderful additions to the soil. If you put brewed tea in a spray bottle and spray on seedlings or foliage, the tannic acid helps plants grow healthy and strong. Coffee grounds are rich in nitrogen and can help plants grow faster, whether it’s tomatoes or turf. Crush your calcium-rich eggshells really well and add them to the soil; they may even help prevent blossom-end rot if sprinkled around tomato plants!

Consider researching and planting a cover crop in the fall; this is a sure way to improve your garden’s soil health.

A few simple things will go a long way to creating an organic-rich soil environment for your plants as well as all the microorganisms and other creatures that live there. The investment in this ecosystem pays considerable dividends. Dr. Charles E. Kellogg reminds us, “Essentially, all life depends upon the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”

It is our privilege and responsibility to take care of our soil, so that it can continue taking care of us.

Rae Punzel is a Kenosha writer and horticulturalist. She owns Bennu Organics, a horticulture services and consulting business. Contact her at


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