The Importance of Good Soil Health
Much like building a strong house, growing healthy plants begins with a good foundation: the soil they grow in. Alan Ray explores the differences between types of soils and what to do if your dirt isn’t giving your plants the nutrients they need.
“T’is more to this than meets the eye” is an old saying which never rang more true than when referring to the earth beneath our feet. Consider this statement by Howard Warren Buffett, formerly of the US Dept of Agriculture: “There are more living organisms in a tablespoon of highly organic soil than there are people on the planet.” That is a mind-melting statistic strongly confirming we inhabit a living, breathing, planet whose mysteries are as many and varied as the life it supports.
Just as incredulous, studies have revealed a mere one-acre of healthy earth can contain as much as forty-tons of living organisms known as a soil-food-web. Invisible life sustaining visible life. With gardening, it is the secret life below that allows the life above to grow.
Before planting, make sure your little Eden isn’t running a food-web deficit. Dead dirt, in effect. It doesn’t take a horticulturist to realize live plants won’t thrive in dead dirt.
For the home grower, good gardening starts with good, nutrient-stocked soil. Left alone, plants pretty much grow by themselves. That’s their job. Our job as good stewards of the garden is to work and create a healthy environment in which our plants can flourish and reach their full potential. That begins with their substrate.
Read also: The Soil Food Web: How to Build Healthy Soil
A little sweat equity now will pay big dividends later in addition to reducing the extra effort required trying to keep plants healthy in poor soil. Working the earth and prepping the soil before planting also helps put you in-tune with your garden.
This doesn’t mean you become one with your plants while levitating over the lettuce, but it does speak to the foundations of good gardening that will go a long way toward ensuring a happy you and a healthy harvest.
Healthy Plants Require Healthy Soil
Good soil does everything for your plants bad soil doesn’t. It supplies the necessary nutrients while providing your plants the soil best suited for their particular root systems. It is wise to get the right soil for your plants. Some plants, such as cacti and other succulents, need a sandy soil while others, like the Iris, Coreopsis, and Fern, grow well in clayey soil. Wisteria likes a loamy dirt. Make time to learn what soil type your garden plants require and prepare accordingly.
Essentially, soil is an assemblage of particles consisting of three minerals (clay, sand, and silt) in varying proportions along with some liquids and gasses. The percentage of each mineral helps determine the soil’s consistency. The darker the soil, the richer it is with organic matter. Here is a quick reference chart of general soil types.
Loam — There are some variations on loamy-soil but as a rule of thumb, loam consists of around 40 per cent sand with about 40 per cent silt and 20 per cent clay. Loam is a softer soil and a good general-purpose dirt.
Sand — No mystery here. Sandy soil allows for good aeration (oxygen supply) and quick draining. Perfect for most water retaining succulents requiring a fast run off.
Silt — With its tiny particles, silt compacts tightly and stifles aeration. However, this also enables the soil to retain water and nutrients. Plants that like a clayey soil will thrive in a silty one. Roses, Butterfly bushes, and many perennials flourish in silty soil.
Clay — Clay is comprised of tiny, flat, and flaky particles making water drainage slow. Clayey soils also compact quite tightly when dried, making it difficult for some plant roots to penetrate. However, clay has its fans. Goldenrod and black-eyed Susans being two of the many.
Read also: Amendments to Improve Soil Health
Evaluating Your Soil’s pH
It’s important to get the correct soil type for your particular plants and to make sure they have the proper pH balance. Though pretty adaptable, most plants like a pH between 6 and 7.
Having the correct pH balance cannot be more important. Proper pH allows for the uptake of important nutrients. Improper pH levels can negatively affect that uptake by allowing too much of one nutrient and not enough of another to be absorbed.
Moreover, nutrients not used can build up in the soil and potentially starve your plant of them. Balance your soil.
When Dirt Needs Help
Few gardens come with magic ground, a perfect balance of pH, and correct nutrients. Often, they need a little help from the gardener. You can nearly always bring a poor soil back to good health and up to speed by simply adding some organic matter.
Evaluate your soil using a readily available soil tester. This tool can give you the moisture content and pH level of your dirt. If your pH level needs adjusting or you feel you may have nutrient deficiencies in your soil, there are easy ways to correct them. Your local extension office can evaluate your soil for deficiencies.
Read also: How to Customize Your Own Organic Potting Mix
Troubleshooting Your Soil
Thick Clay — With too clayey a soil you can add some pea-sized gravel to help prevent it from becoming too solid and aid in drainage. Be careful adding sand. It can help some types of clay but also turn others to concrete. Sphagnum peat moss is good for loosening up clayey soil.
Nutrient Deficient — Lacking good nutrients is an easy fix as well. Composting can be a gardener’s best friend. Compost is merely broken-down organic matter you can make at home. Composting is all natural and can quickly improve soil health by introducing good bacteria and microorganisms that promote healthy soil with improved nutrients and aeration.
Too Alkaline — Reduce alkalinity and raise the acidic level of your soil by adding cottonseed meal to your dirt.
Too Sandy — Add decomposed manure, grass clippings, and leaves as well as humus (decomposed plant material). Do not use fresh manure. It should have no odor.
Too Acidic — Spread about three pounds of ground limestone for every one-hundred square feet of average soil. Four pounds if it is pretty sandy.
By adding mulch (decomposed organic matter) you are amending the soil to restore balance. A mulch pile is worth its weight in healthy produce.
When it comes to gardening, there is no exact science. Well... there probably is but I don’t know it. These are merely some basic guidelines to get you going in the right direction in hopes it will help improve your garden soil and provide your plants with the environment they need to grow and flourish as Nature intended.
Specific modifications may be necessary for your particular soil type. Preparing your garden area weeks before you sew will give your plants a healthy head-start on the upcoming growing season.
Don’t be afraid to do a bit of research either because a garden is where digging up a little dirt can be a good thing.
Written by Alan Ray
Alan Ray has written five books and is a New York Times best-selling author. Additionally, he is an award-winning songwriter with awards from BMI and ASCAP respectively. He lives in rural Tennessee with his wife, teenage son, and two dogs: a South African Boerboel (Bore-Bull) and a Pomeranian/Frankenstein mix.