Conduct Yourself Accordingly: Measuring Electrical Conductivity for Bigger and Healthier Plants
One often-overlooked aspect of growing is electrical conductivity, or EC, which measures the quantity of available nutrients in your soil. As affordable soil conductivity and temperature meter technology develops, it adds one more tool for farmers and gardeners to monitor, collect, and catalog this data directly.
Most gardeners or farmers start their journey of food production through trial and error: observing which conditions work, noting which ones don’t, and experimenting with how they can be improved. They begin with one or two potted tomato or pepper plants, then a couple of raised beds, then eventually every square inch of usable space on the property.
With each experience of success and failure, growers eventually start to feel more in tune with the environment: the gradual climate changes, incoming storms, early signs of season change, insect mating rituals, even a sensitivity to ambient temperature and relative humidity. At the very least, the effect these environmental changes might have on the crops can be predicted.
For me, this process of learning has been a profound evolution and journey: this newfound connection to plants has changed my life. However, within all this wonderment and child-like discovery, I quickly caught on to the fact that hard, data-driven facts, and scientific analyses would minimize my failures and bolster my success.
"Knowing your soil’s EC allows you to make more educated farming decisions about adding fertilizers to particular crop locations, or the rotation of your plots."
What is Electrical Conductivity and Why is it Important to my Plants?
Electrical conductivity (EC) is a quick, simple, and inexpensive way for that farmers and gardeners can check the health of their soils. Whereas pH is a good indicator of the balance of available nutrients in your soil, electrical conductivity can be viewed as the quantity of available nutrients in your soil. It is important to note that only nutrients that are dissolved in the soil water are available for crops to take in.
In the soil, EC reading shows the level of ability the soil water has to carry an electrical current. The EC levels of the soil water is a good indicator of the amount of nutrients available for your crops to absorb.
The major and minor nutrients important for plant growth take the form of either cations (positively charged ions) or anions (negatively charged ions). These ions that are dissolved in the soil water carry an electrical charge, and thus determine the EC level of your soil. Knowing your soil’s EC allows you to make more educated farming decisions about adding fertilizers to particular crop locations, or the rotation of your plots.
This instrument also lets you know if your soil conductivity is too high, which can cause issues with normal soil and plant functions like respiration, decomposition, nitrification, and denitrification. Conversely, a lack of nutrients in the soil can create plant nutrient deficiency, which could lead to plant disease and susceptibility to certain pests and pathogens.
Factors to Consider Regarding Electrical Conductivity
Each plant has unique needs to be as healthy as possible: the correct ratio of nutrients, the correct temperature of the soil, and the right amount of watering and fertilizer. While it’s important that each plant receive the nutrients it needs in order to be healthy, having too much of any one nutrient leads to slower growth, lower yields, and even toxicity.
To avoid nutrient buildup, plants require their soil to be flushed at every scheduled opportunity. Even this requires proper timing, as flushing too often will leave plants nutrient deficient. Using a direct soil EC meter helps farmers tailor their feeding and flushing schedules to individual plant needs.
Meanwhile, the temperature of soil needs to be regulated so plants will be incubated but not overheated. As with nutrients, temperature requirements vary with each plant: some plants like peppers enjoy a hotter soil, while plants like cucumbers enjoy a much lower soil temperature.
Soil temperature not only depends on climate, but also watering frequency and the size of the plant’s container: more watering leads to lower temperatures, whereas smaller, shallower containers build up heat more quickly.
Finally, plants need certain amounts of watering and fertilizer to remain healthy.
While it seems like common sense to keep plants hydrated, too much watering can lead to mold problems and weaken plant defense systems. Likewise, an overabundance of fertilizer can also lead to lower yields from unhealthy plants. The amount each plant needs will vary, as crops such as tomatoes will need more water to sustain themselves. This in turn affects how frequently plants need to be watered—tomatoes will need to be tended more often than plants adapted to drier climates.
All of the aforementioned factors can be observed with tools like an EC meter. With their ease of use, they can be tested quickly and frequently. The amount of testing done is vital to the health of your plants, as changes that need to be made are best realized sooner than later.
Remember, your EC meter will only be able to read conductivity in the medium/soil; it cannot distinguish between available and non-available conductive-ness. It’s up to the farmer or gardener to know what type of plants they are growing, what nutrients are available in the soil, and what type of nutrient concentration the crops will best thrive in.
Written by Austin Yeany
Austin Yeany has been professionally involved in the agriculture and hydroponics industry for five years. He operates a business known as VGS Organic, where he engineers custom-made gardens. He is also currently studying agricultural science.