Spring Means SOIL
Healthy soil is the backbone to your garden's ecosystem. Without heathy soil you cannot have a healthy garden. Another advantage of having healthy soil is that it will be much easier to work with.
How to tell if your soil is healthy
Dig a hole around 20cm deep when the soil is neither too wet nor too dry. Separate a section trying to keep it in tact as much as possible. Gently place it down and have a close inspection. Is your soil able to hold up if you squeeze it with light pressure, or is it crumbly? Or does it just stay together in clumps that are hard to break apart? If your soil is crumbly or hard to break up, you need to add compost. You want your soil to be able to hold its shape under slight pressure.
Where possible not do destroy your soil structure. It may be tempting to break up clumps (peds) of soil (up to 6cm in size) but you are damaging the soil structure. Once this is done, it will take your soil considerable time to reform these.
A simple test to test for compaction is inserting a piece of wire into the soil. You want the wire to be able to be inserted to a depth of around 30cm. Repeat this process in several areas close to one another. If this is not achievable, your soil is compacted. Compacted soil causes many issues, most commonly plant root growth and water adsorption is inhibited. Also, earthworm movement will be restricted.
Earthworms castings leave enzymes, bacteria, organic matter, and nutrients in the soil. Their movement through the soil creates "tunnels". These allow for air and water to move through the soil. When you dig a section of soil you ideally want to see five earthworms.
Earthworms also provide food for birds and other animals that visit your garden. Having these extra visitors will create a diverse ecosystem. When you have a balanced ecosystem you are less likely to need to intervene with pest management.
Healthy soil is full of life. It will contain fungi, bacteria, insects, and invertebrates. The more diverse the range of life your soil supports the healthier it is. Healthy soil will lessen your need for pest and disease management. In the evening have a look at a section of your soil. You are wanting to see around 10 spiders and insects. If not, your soil does have enough "life". Remember different seasons will produce different results.
Good bugs Vs Bad Bugs - Remember you need to have the bad to have the good. You only intervene when the bad bugs are in numbers that your ecosystem cannot control them. I know that in my garden every spring the aphids appear first and normally in droves. But very soon after the ladybeetles appear and enjoy a feast. Get to know your garden and its patterns. If you do need to intervene, always use organic methods first.
Heathy Plant and Leaf Waste
Adding organic matter to your garden will increase your soil's health. Soil that is not mulched will form a crust and will eventually become hydrophobic. The ideal thickness of mulch is around 5 to 7cm.
Take advantage of your green waste when trimming your plants. I use the method known as "chop and drop". Once I have completed trimming my plants I ensure that the vegetation is free of pests (you are looking for any large populations that you ecosystem will not be able to control) and disease. Once I am satisfied, I will leave large branches in the garden for insects to make into homes and then evenly spread the leaf matter.
Diversifying the organic matter added to your soil is important. Different plants will add different nutrients.
If your soil is healthy and your plants have had access to water then your plants should be healthy. Keep an eye on plants through out the year. Take note what is normal for your plant for that season. If you notice disease or large numbers of pests then this is a sign that is there is something wrong with your plant. Soil health may not be the cause but if you have an area that is struggling to support healthy plants, then you need to investigate your soil.
When I am working in the garden, I always have a gentle poke around to inspect the roots of plants. Of course, I only do this for plants that are able to be disturb. I also check the weeds after I have removed them. You are wanting to see roots that are fine with a white healthy appearance. Roots that appear to be stunted or not developing properly can indicate an issue with your soil.
Brown, mushy roots indicate drainage problems. If you are checking regularly, you have a greater chance of saving the plant. Once again it depends on the plant but if possible, dig up the plant, remove the damaged roots and replant in an area with better drainage. I do this check constantly with plants like bearded irises. If you do have damp / boggy sections in your garden, you don't need to do anything just plant water tolerant plants in that location.
Water that pools on top of the soil and does not soak in, is an indication that the soil is hydrophobic. Basically this means that the individual grains in the soil have developed a waxy coating. It is not easy nor is there a quick fix to resolve this problem. The best thing to do is a add organic matter to your soil on a regular basis. One thing you do not do, is add products like soil crystals to your soil. These contain chemicals which will then be transferred to your soil.