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How to Revive Dead Soil and Energize Your Zombie Plants

Dry, Dead, Cracked Soil.

You can’t grow plants in dirt.  This might sound ridiculous, but if your garden isn’t doing well, it could be because it’s growing in dirt.  “This doesn’t make sense!” you say.  Well, for starters, dirt is dead; it has no life in it.  Plants need living soil that’s full of the organisms they need to flourish.  Journey on, and we’ll show you how to determine if your soil is dead or alive.  From there, we’ll give practical tips on how to revive dead soil for a healthy, productive garden.

When is Soil Dead?

Have you ever noticed that all life relies on other life to survive?  It may seem like a simple idea, but it’s profound.  If you take any organism and separate it from all other life, it won’t survive.

Let’s see how standard commercial farming plays into this:

  • Year after year, tilling destroys the soil structure and biome.
  • Tilling causes earthworms, fungi, and other organisms to lose their networks.  They can’t survive.
  • Growing and turning over cover crops adds organic matter and nutrients to the ground. Nature doesn’t do it this way, though.
  • Chemical fertilizers replace the lost soil nutrients.  When have we ever added chemical fertilizers to plants growing in nature?
  • Large farms have to irrigate crops.  That’s because the exposed soil can’t hold normal moisture levels.
  • The plants are now growing in an unnatural environment.  Without natural defenses, they attract diseases and pests.  That leads to using more chemicals to protect them.
  • The farmers reap a harvest, but it doesn’t come from natural methods.
  • The following year, the soil is all compacted.  The only solution appears to be breaking up the soil again before planting.  And the cycle of killing the soil continues.

What would we see if we dug up the soil at one of these commercial farms?  Well, we’d see dirt, not living soil.  No earthworms, no fungi, no massive quantities of organic matter.  That’s why it takes so much effort to force plants to grow in those conditions.

Many farmers have gained wisdom and stopped the tilling that kills the soil.  Instead, they’re now using no-till gardening methods.  They’ve found that not tilling and keeping the soil alive has enormous benefits.

So, How Does This Apply to Gardening At Home?

As home gardeners, we have our small-scale ways of killing the soil.  Rotary tillers have the same effect as gang plows.  Then, we buy chemical fertilizers and pesticides like commercial farming operations.

This was my personal experience growing up.  My Dad taught me how to till because that’s what he learned living on a farm.  Any relatives with farms or gardens also tilled – it was the accepted way.

I started questioning this one hot summer day when I was watering my wilted garden.  Why was I watering my plants when the brush about twenty feet away was still green and healthy?

When I compared the soils, the one from my garden area was dry and hard, devoid of air and water.  Other than an occasional bug on the surface and my plants, the soil showed no other signs of life.

I also didn’t see a top layer of soil rich in organic matter.  How could there be?  I buried it every year with the rototiller!  The soil tested okay for pH and nutrients, but my plants still weren’t in perfect health.

The soil under the brush retained moisture.  Full of organic material, it was teeming with earthworms and other life.  It became apparent that conventional gardening was killing the soil.

This set me on the path to learn how to restore the soil to what nature intended.  Here is what I discovered:

How to Test if Soil is Alive or Dead

The Underground Test

The best time to do this test is in the spring when the soil is about 50o F and moist.  Dig up a cubic foot of soil (12” x 12” x 12”) and check it as well as the hole.

What do you see when you’re digging the hole?  Healthy soil has lots of earthworms, healthy plant roots, and a dark upper layer of topsoil.

Once you have a pile of soil, check it.  The soil is alive and healthy if there are at least ten earthworms.

If you see any of these things:

  • Few earthworms and other organisms.
  • Plant roots that look unhealthy.
  • The topsoil layer is thin or missing

Then your soil is a zombie and needs reviving.

Earthworms in healthy soil.
Soft and squishy but powerful.
Earthworms are a major sign that your soil is healthy and ready to support plant life.

How to Save Dead Soil

Besides tilling, there are three major life killers in gardens today.  Those are chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.  Although they may appear helpful, they kill beneficial organisms and earthworms.

In a short time, the soil becomes a dead zone.  That’s because chemicals have replaced natural substances.  How can anyone think this is a good way to grow food?

All the good organisms need living organic matter for the best soil health.  They can’t exist on industrial chemicals or fertilizers. Lackluster soil needs good organic soil amendments to feed the organisms and plants.

The Steps to Saving Dead Soil

  • If you’re using any chemicals, stop using them.
  • Let the ground rest for a year or so.  If it doesn’t, the next steps will take a longer time to work. This is also a step toward improving the pH level of the soil.
  • Get compost, organic fertilizers, and aged manure (not cat or dog feces) to mix with the soil. Adding a few layers of compost over time is a powerful way to bring life back to soil. It also improves the drainage of clay soils.
  • Green manures” are cover crops planted and tilled into the soil. They are any plant that decomposes easily to help enrich the soil. Legumes, like clover, also add nitrogen to the soil.
  • Wood chip mulch is a great way to help rebuild topsoil. These should be arborist wood chips, which are shredded branches and leaves.
  • Once the soil has organic matter, it’s time for some earthworms.  For a quick recovery, you can buy the little wigglers online.

Want to make your life a little easier?  Stop raking leaves in the fall.  Leaves are a natural supplement for the soil, and it’s a mistake to rake them and then bag them or burn them.

Run through leaves with the lawn mower whenever you get leaves on the lawn.  That will cut the leaves into tiny pieces that will decompose easier.  Please don’t wait for the leaves to get too thick on the lawn because that will make mulching them more difficult.

The leaves make the soil more acidic, but grass prefers slightly acidic soil anyway.  We stopped raking leaves years ago and have never looked back.

Healthy soil is the foundation for the delicious vegetables and herbs that keep us healthy.  Want to learn more about improving the soil?  See our articles about no-till gardening, soil texture, and testing for pH and nutrients.

Bob Styer

As a child, I hated gardening. That was mainly because Dad expected us to work in the garden every so often even though we thought play was more important. Over the years, though, I've developed a real appreciation for growing things. Whether you're growing plants for food or to enjoy their beauty, gardening can make your life better. Seize the moment!

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