Improving your soil

Soil is the foundation for plant growth and the source of the essential elements. Minerals, air and water are all provided to plants as a gift from the soil. Soils will vary in the degree in which they can provide each of the essential elements and this variance alters the selection of plants which thrive in each particular case. Good quality soil will promote strong plant growth, substantial vegetables, robust blooms and healthy turf. Ensuring that your soil is nutritious and has a good texture will make your goal of a beautiful garden that much easier.

In most cases, the ideal soil for the plants we wish to grow is a rich loamy soil that is well drained. Loam is a soil classification or textural type meaning that the soil has a moderate amount of sand, silt and clay. Of these three components, sand has the largest particle size and will therefore provide drainage and air spaces to the soil. Clay is the smallest particle size and will consequently hold more water and tend to pack and form clumps. Silt is midway between these two sizes.

Humus is another term which is often used to describe soil components. Humus is the term for the stable fraction of the soil organic matter that remains after the added plant and animal residues have decomposed. A high percentage of humus would classify the soil as “rich”.

Testing your soil is an excellent way to find out about its nutritional status. The test will tell you the pH, the percentage of organic matter and the content of many of the essential elements. Usually a fertilizer recommendation will accompany the soil test report. The soil may be deficient in phosphorous, potassium, magnesium or calcium. Each deficiency can be easily remedied by adding these fertilizer products in early spring or the fall. In addition, an all-purpose fertilizer can be used through the growing season to supply a well balanced diet of nutrients which will replace those which are taken up by the plant.

Along with the soil’s nutritional status, its texture will determine which plants will thrive. Plants which require wet soil, for example, will not survive well in sandy soil. For these, the gardener is well advised to amend the soil with organic matter and perhaps a loamier soil to boost the water holding capacity of the existing soil. Conversely, plants which prefer drier conditions will suffer in clay soils.

Clay soils are probably the more common problem in the typical garden. Heavy clay is difficult to work with, compacts easily when it is wet and holds a lot of water. When dry, it becomes very hard and tends to crack. With a steady supply of light rain, a clay soil will work quite well but in other, more typical, situations, it makes gardening extra challenging. Adding organic matter and sand and mixing it well with the existing soil will help to improve the soil conditions.

The addition of compost and/or manure on a yearly basis is a critical part of maintaining a healthy soil. The organic matter will provide the humus which is highly nutritious, improves the water holding capacity and is of the right texture to allow for proper air spaces.

Organic matter will also feed the soil micro-organisms which play a vital role in aerating the soil and making the soil nutrients available for the plants to use. At the very least, organic matter should be added every fall, as nature does when the leaves fall. In addition to this, to improve the soil and add nutrients which have been removed by either vegetable production or other gardening activities, organic matter should be added throughout the growing season. This can be done by surrounding the plants with organic mulch in late spring and during the summer. The mulch will not only add organic matter, but will also protect the roots from temperature extremes, keep the soil moist and prevent weed invasion. If your garden is struggling with weed invasion, insects and disease, it is time to take the steps towards improving your soil. If your lawn was devastated by a grub infestation, amend the soil with organic matter first, before you re-seed or sod. If your lawn is weak and thin, top-dressing with an improved soil and organic matter along with a turf fertilizer program, will promote a healthy green lawn. Mulch your ornamental and vegetable garden during the summer and allow nature to offer a helping hand to improve your soil.