GETTING DOWN AND DIRTY ABOUT SOIL
Time to get down – and I mean down – to the real work at hand and take a hard look at your soil. No matter the quality of your seeds and plants, and even when you have the best growing season, if your soil isn’t right, you won’t succeed. So what makes for healthy soil?
THE authority on soil biology
First, we need to understand a little bit about soil. Let me introduce you to Dr. Elaine Ingham, an American microbiologist and soil biology researcher who authored The Soil Biology Primer, the seminal work on soil biology. She is known as a leader in soil microbiology and research of the soil food web.
The soil food web
Now you don’t need to understand the finer details of the soil food web, but it would help a great deal if you grasped the basic tenet. Soil is alive with millions of microscopic organisms which we need to keep alive if we want the soil to feed our plants.
Here’s how it works. Living plants maintain a rhizosphere, an area of concentrated microbial activity close to the root. The rhizosphere is the most active part of the soil ecosystem because it is where the most readily available food is, and where peak nutrients exist and water cycling occurs. Microbial food is exuded by plant roots to attract and feed microbes that provide nutrients (and other compounds) to the plant at the root-soil interface where the plants can take them up. Living roots provide the easiest source of food for soil microbes.
Healthy soil is dependent upon how well the soil food web is fed. Providing plenty of easily accessible food to soil microbes helps them cycle nutrients that plants need to grow. Sugars from living plant roots, recently dead plant roots, crop residues, and soil organic matter all feed the many and varied members of the soil food web.
What to do to fix your soil
What does all this mean for you? Managing for soil health is mostly a matter of maintaining suitable habitat for the myriad of creatures that comprise the soil food web. This can be accomplished by disturbing the soil as little as possible, growing as many different species of plants as practical, keeping living plants in the soil as long as possible, and keeping the soil covered all the time.
Studies prove that soil degrades with the use of toxic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. It can further deteriorate via nutrient loss (from overcropping and weather), increased salinity, erosion, and tilling. Besides favoring weedy plants that are the first to colonize areas of disturbance, the slicing and dicing of soil organisms decimates this fragile ecosystem. That weak condition can be the perfect backdrop for a diverse array of problems like bacterial and fungal pathogens, viral diseases, compaction, and erosion.
If your soil is dead and lifeless the good news is you can restore it quickly and without much cost. That’s pretty much where we all start, with dirt that is hard-packed.
The role of soil texture
Start by getting a handle on your soil texture. It’s an important part of fixing your soil. Texture relates to soil porosity: the spaces where air and water reside. Both are critical needs of the organisms in the rhizosphere. The three primary soil particles that comprise texture are sand, silt, and clay. Loam is the ideal soil textural mix of sand, silt, and clay particles.
In most cases these particles will not be balanced, and the soil will need to be altered. You can evaluate soil texture by using a simple jar to help you determine the percentages of the three components. With that info, you can use something called the soil textural triangle to determine the soil type and how to amend it. Clemson University has a great fact sheet on this test, including interpreting your results at https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/soil-texture-analysis-the-jar-test/
Add organic matter
Bolster your soil by adding organic matter to address your soil issues. You can add compost to the top layer of your garden and plant directly into it. Plant roots and microbes will do the deeper digging for you. Coast Of Maine Quoddy Lobster compost has a terrific array of nutrients for your soil.
Take advantage of grass clippings, leaves and other organic mulches on a regular basis to promote and sustain the soil food web.
Organic matter improves the air space in the ground. It lets soil breathe and allows water to percolate through. Worms, animals, and insects like ants help aerate the soil, as does seasonal freezing and thawing. One of the easiest things you can do is to allow plant roots to break up the soil, especially when it comes to annuals. At the end of the season instead of pulling them up, cut them at ground level to let the roots compost in place without any intervention. Refrain from walking on your soil especially when wet by using pathways and boards between rows.
Microbes, bacteria, viruses, fungi, bugs, and so much more are basic to organic matter. So, the good news is that the fix for unhealthy soil in just about every case is to add organic matter. Not only does organic matter come with all those good things, but it also helps to create air space in your soil. This in turn will allow water to percolate through,
and eliminate flooding at the crowns of your plants.
Aim for soil that is well aerated and alive.
Then just stand back and watch things grow.
Written by Lorraine Ballato, author of Success With Hydrangeas: A Gardener’s Guide