You can learn a lot about a garden by digging up its dirt. Ideally, the soil in your hands would be dark, moist, crumbly, and teeming with bugs and earthworms; signs it’s effectively delivering nutrients to plants, storing water, and retrieving excess carbon from the atmosphere.
If yours falls more into the dry, compact, and lifeless category, you’re not alone. “In most places, you can assume that your soil is in need of some care,” longtime urban gardener Rishi Kumar tells mbg. However, turning things around underground is possible and relatively easy.
Since co-founding his company Healing Gardens, which connects people with impressive gardens in their area to visit or rent out for events, Kumar has seen plenty of vibrant, lush outdoor spaces that started as patches of barren ground. “Every type of soil is capable of creating a garden and storing carbon,” he says, adding that sometimes it just needs a little help from us.
Here, Kumar shares five ways to nurture your soil back to health and regenerate your garden in the process:
1. Add 3 inches of compost.
“The easiest way to start caring for your soil is to buy or make compost,” says Kumar. Made of decomposed organic matter, compost will help your soil retain just the right amount of water, air, and nutrients.
Creating your own compost at home has the added benefit of repurposing food scraps and yard waste, but Kumar cautions that it does take a while to get it going. So to quickly kick-start your soil’s recovery process, he recommends buying commercially made compost and using it to cover the top 3 inches of your garden. This should be enough to create a healthier environment for surrounding plant and animal life, and it’ll help reduce the need for fertilizers or other soil amendments moving forward.
2. Leave the trimmings behind.
Like fertilizers, plant trimmings, branches, and leaves all contain nutrients that can improve the condition of your soil.
“Make sure that when you’re trimming your plants, you’re not throwing those leaves and branches in the trash. They should go back into the soil somehow,” Kumar recommends. You can either turn those yard scraps into compost, let them sit on the ground to naturally decompose (forming valuable habitats for insects and animals as they do), turn them into mulch, or bury them underground.
While letting this “waste” stick around may seem counterintuitive, Kumar explains that it mimics the way that nutrients normally get cycled in natural ecosystems. (Consider how deciduous trees drop their leaves to form an organic layer that gradually feeds the soil underneath them year after year.) “Mulch also protects soil from the heat of the sun,” he adds, as well as prevents evaporation and maintains soil moisture.
Kumar says that his personal garden has branches, leaves, and wood chips scattered about—but he’ll always leave some patches of ground uncovered, since certain insects, seeds, and bees require bare soil to thrive.
3. Add a variety of plants.
Every plant needs a unique combination of nutrients to survive. When your garden is filled with an assortment of plants, shrubs, and trees, it helps ensure that no one thing is draining your soil of a particular nutrient.
Kumar says that in addition to keeping soil balanced, planting things like native plants with lots of tiny flowers, fruit trees, and flowering herbs and vegetables can attract lots of different kinds of insects, reducing the likelihood that one pest invades your whole space.
If you have a manicured, grassy lawn (these tend to be very nutrient-depleting), try to cover small patches of it with native plants at a time to improve soil quality and potentially reduce the need for chemical pesticides or fertilizers.
4. Let things evolve over time.
“A lot of people think that there is this ideal state the garden should be in,” Kumar notes. They try to keep the grass a certain length and color, the flowers a certain fullness, the shrubs perfectly manicured. “That’s a garden of control,” he says.
At the end of the day, gardens that are left to get a little wild, to take on their own forms of expression, will usually be better off. He’s noticed that the healthiest gardens tend to look at least a little different season after season.
5. Make it regenerative for you, too.
At Healing Gardens, they operate off the philosophy that regenerative gardens do more than absorb carbon and support a variety of wildlife. Instead, “our definition of regenerative really includes the healing of people.”
Gardens are naturally therapeutic spaces where we can go to relax, unwind, and re-center after long days. So Kumar says that in addition to designing your yard for nature, you should make it welcoming and hospitable for humans, too. They are, after all, one and the same.