It’s all in the soil
There’s nothing like a spell of hot, dry weather to expose the crusting, cracking, nutrient-depleted state of your soil. Heavy clays and apparently lifeless sands really show their flaws in the warmer months.
Soils that might have seemed halfway passable under the fallen leaves and the more regular rainfall of June/Julycan – by Harmattan’s mid January – be dusty, cloddy or, even worse, baked like concrete. Plunge your shovel in and there might not be a worm in sight.
But below every thriving plant is a healthy, resilient soil. Soils can be the most complex ecosystem on the planet. They can contain far more biodiversity than a coral reef and be much more complex than a tropical rainforest.
Just one teaspoon of good garden soil can contain a billion invisible bacteria, several meters of impossible-to-spot fungal structures, several thousand protozoa (non-algal, non-fungal, animal-like unicellular organisms), a few dozen nematodes (roundworms about two millimetres long), and maybe an earthworm or two.
A teaspoon of bad soil might be pure dust or gravel. While lots of plants have evolved to cope with impoverished soil in the wild, the same in our gardens rarely accommodates all that we want to grow. Even plants that cope in poor soils usually prefer better ones.Good tillage, depth and drainage are the ideal. A huge population of beneficial organisms is a definite plus and chemical contamination a clear minus. All gardeners want soil that provides plants with nourishment even in times of drought.
Why Soil Texture Matters
The ideal soil for growing plants holds moisture long enough for plants to absorb it, but not so long that the plant roots soak in standing water and drown or rot. It is also loose (friable) enough for the roots to get some air. “Soil texture” is the term used to describe how soil handles water and air. Although there are other factors at play, it is the size of the mineral particles in the soil that have the most impact on this.
Soils with very fairly large particles are described as sandy. Water, air, and plant roots can move freely in sandy soils, sometimes too much so. At the other end of the spectrum is clay. Clay particles are so small that they pack together tightly and leave little room for water, air, or roots. If you’ve ever tried to garden in baked clay, you know it also leaves little room for a shovel blade. An easy test for soil texture is to make a ball of damp garden soil. If it breaks apart easily when you tap it, it’s sandy. If you can press it between your thumb and finger and make a ribbon, it’s clay.
Good garden soils are somewhere in between sand and clay. The ideal soil is a form called a sandy loam. Ideal soil should be light enough to allow for air and water movement, but it should also have some tilth—a kind of fine breadcrumb-like texture that occurs when there is plenty of organic matter in the soil.
What are garden soil amendments?
Soil amendments are materials which are worked into the soil to enhance the soil’s physical properties. Good soil is the foundation of every successful garden. Unfortunately few gardens come with soil that is ideal for growing plants; nutrient rich, well-draining, while still holding water long enough for plant roots to access it, creates a nice, crumbly tilth. Since gardeners cannot count on nature to supply all the essentials, they will have to be added by the gardener. That’s where soil amendments come in.There are several reasons soil amendments might be recommended for your garden or lawn. The two most common are to improve the soil’s texture and to correct the soil’s pH.
Don’t try to change your soil texture by adding sand to clay or vice versa. That is a recipe for cement. Some amendment recommendations for clay do include a portion of very fine sand, but there are better ways to change your soil texture.
Improving Soil Texture
Often soil is low in organic matter, necessary for the structure, water retention and life of your soil. Organic matter includes: compost, composted manure, peat moss, coir, leaf mold and any other plant or animal remains or waste products. This may not sound like something that would be good for your garden, but organic matter can quickly change the texture of your soil as well as encourage beneficial organisms to set up home in your garden soil.
When to Improve Garden Soil With Amendments
Garden soil should be amended when there is either a nutritional or pH deficit or texture problems that keep plants from growing well. The best time to amend garden soil is when a garden bed is first being established. In an ongoing garden, some form of amendment is an ongoing garden task, even if it’s as simple as digging in some compost prior to each year’s planting duties. And garden soils may require repeated amendment as the nutrients are consumed and the organic material breaks do
EAdjust Soil Texture With Organic Material
Proper soil texture is essential to allow plant roots to take up moisture and air. Dense, “clayey” soils can remain too moist, causing roots to literally drown, while sandy soils may drain too quickly for roots to find and absorb moisture. The very best way to improve soil texture is by adding organic material, such as compost or peat moss. Organic matter is dead plant or animal material. There is always some organic matter in your soil, but usually not enough for a plant’s needs. Decaying organic matter, or humus, will help give your soil tilth. It helps sandy soil by retaining water that would otherwise wash away and it corrects clay soil by making it looser so that air, water, and roots can penetrate. In all soils, it encourages beneficial microbial activity and it provides some nutritional benefits.
Common forms of organic material are used to amend garden soil include:
Compost. Compost makes an excellent amendment, and if you are composting your garden waste, it’s free.
Manure. Manure can often be obtained from local farms and stables. It should be composted and decomposed until it turns dark, crumbly, and odorless. Fresh manure has too much ammonia in it and can burn your plants and offend your neighbors.
Peat moss. Peat moss is cheap and works well to loosen the soil. It is also very dusty. Wet it first to make it easier to work with.
Grass clippings. You can work grass clippings and other plant debris directly into the garden bed to decompose slowly. Be sure whatever you put down is free of seeds and has not been treated with pesticides or weed killers.
Cover crops. Also known as green manure, cover crops are grown on unused soil with the intent of tilling them in and letting them decompose in the garden. The roots keep the soil loosened as they grow, and the plants suppress weeds. Cover crops from the legume family, such as clover and vetch, also add nitrogen to the soil. Cover crops are most often used for vegetable garden sites.
Organic fertilizers are plant- or animal-based. They release their nutrients over a period of time. You won’t get an instant fix as you do with synthetic fertilizers, but you will get a longer, sustained feeding period of feeding.
Fertilizers vary in the type of nutrients they contain and in what ratio and quantity. A complete fertilizer is one that contains all three primary nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Different plants have different nutritional needs, but in most cases, a balanced complete fertilizer will be the type to use. You will need to learn how to read a fertilizer label in order to make proper choices for your plants. Your soil test report will also make recommendations on the type and quantity of fertilizer to use.You can also get supplemental nutrition from products such as manure and fish emulsion for nitrogen, bone meal for phosphorus, and wood ashes for potassium.
Follow label directions for application of organic or inorganic (synthetic) fertilizer. Some granular forms are mixed into the soil, while water-soluble fertilizers are applied with a sprayer or watering can
Tips for Improving Soil
Adding compost or another organic material is the single most important way to amend the soil. A yearly application of compost, for example, may eliminate the need for all other forms of amendments.Adjusting your soils pH, fertility, and texture to your plants’ liking is the ultimate goal in making good soil through amending. All soil will benefit from the addition of organic matter. How well your soil incorporates that organic matter will determine how much supplemental feeding, if any, is necessary. Your plants will determine what your soil’s pH should be.
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