When I wrote a post about products that help promote soil biodiversity, some commenters were skeptical about commercial products that are shipped long distances with all the packaging and waste that goes with them.
They may have a point. After all, the secrets of healthy soil usually start at home.
And many of them are free. Here are some of our favorites
First and foremost, if you want to build healthy, lively soils, you first have to add food for the soil microbes that inhabit it. That food comes in the form of compost and other organic matter. Whether you are making worm compost or composting cardboard boxes, creating your own soil amendments from materials that would otherwise go to waste is a no-brainer. Not only does it add plant nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to your soil, it also aids with both water retention and drainage and reduces the amount of crap you are sending to landfill too.
Mulch, mulch, mulch
Mulching is a great way to reduce water use, suppress weeds and protect soils from drying out or erosion. It also keeps soils warm, meaning that more nutrients are available to plants when they need them. You can, of course, buy mulch from the garden store (I have been using bales of pine straw this year), but there are also plenty of readily-available free materials that can be put to use. Cardboard, newspapers, lawn clippings and shredded leaves are all useful in their own way. If you have enough plant material growing in your garden, you can even explore chop-n-drop mulching where you simply cut back excessive growth and let the cuttings fall as a mulch. (I sometimes do this with overly tough and overgrown chard leaves.)
Use urine as fertilizer
This one is probably not for everyone, but if you supplement your plant's nutrients with shop-bought fertilizers of any kind (organic or not) you might want to consider a source closer to home. As mentioned in my post on 5 ways that urine can help save humanity, not only can pee replace synthetic fertilizers, but research has shown that tomatoes grown with urine actually out perform their conventionally grown counterparts. Most sources I've looked at suggest diluting 1 part urine with 9 parts water. (Many folks suggest simply peeing in a watering can and then filling up the rest from your rain barrel.)
Save seeds and take cuttings
For the frugal, saving seeds is not just a great way to reduce your expenditure each planting season. Over time, you can also breed unique varieties of plants that have adapted to your specific climate and conditions, not to mention co-evolved with the micro-flora and -fauna that inhabit your soils. And that should mean lower instances of disease and pests and, hopefully, better yields too. It's worth noting that you can also increase the number of plants you're growing by taking cuttings—tomatoes, for example, can be grown from the side-shoots you normally pinch off during pruning.
Collecting rainwater is another one of those activities that saves money in-and-of itself by reducing your water bills. It's perhaps less well know, though, that rainwater harvesting can also benefit the plants in your garden too. According to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the benefits of harvested rainwater include that it typically has fewer contaminants, it is kept at a luke warm temperature and thus doesn't shock plant roots as tap water can, and it also is not treated with chlorine, a chemical which may destroy soil microbes and inhibit plant growth.
Most folks know that pollinators are absolutely central to plants' reproductive processes. Because much of what we eat is either fruit or seed, that means bees and other pollinators are central to what we eat too. You can, of course, encourage bees by buying fancy wildflower packets—but there are cheaper ways too. Simply leaving plants and weeds to flower can be a great way to provide forage (you didn't really want to mow the lawn anyway!), and leaving dead wood around can provide habitat for solitary bees too. We probably don't need to tell TreeHugger readers this, of course, but the simplest way to support bees is to stop wasting money on the chemicals that kill them.
This one's often a little hard for traditional gardeners to grasp, but a strong case can be made for transitioning to a no-dig vegetable garden. By building raised beds which are NEVER walked on, heavily mulched and fed by top dressings of large amounts of organic matter, proponents of no-dig gardening say it protects vital soil life including worms, microbes and mychorrizal fungi which all play a part in maintaining soil fertility.
Whether no-dig gardening actually increases garden productivity per plant is a matter of much debate in the gardening forums online, but as a committed lazivore I can confirm that it greatly reduces the amount of physical labor you put in for each "unit" of harvest and increases the amount of carbon stored in the soil too. These are both yields of their own kind that are well worth celebrating in my book.