A basic understanding of the basics of soil allows the gardener to work with natural processes to enhance plant root growth and overall vigor.
The Basics of Soil: Life
Soil is an amazingly complex, living ecosystem requiring a balance of organic, inorganic, living and nonliving components. Recent soil science research has demonstrated that the most productive soils are loaded with a variety of microbial life; beneficial fungi, bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms work to decompose organic matter into humus. Humus directly influences both the assimilation of nutrients and plant resistance to disease, insects, drought and other stresses.
The Basics of Soil: Physical
Physically, soil should be composed of fifty percent solids and twenty five percent each of liquid and air, with an organic matter content of three to five percent. This side of Iowa, the “ideal” soil is seldom found in the native habitat. In many regions of the country, we are required to amend the soil to provide the optimal growth environment.
The various fine-particle clays and silts benefit greatly from the addition of organic matter. Alkaline clays (high pH) should also be amended with gypsum. The addition of organic matter to sandy and gravely soils is also beneficial, increasing water retention and providing essential nutrients. Initial expense for organic matter and other amendments pays for the continued beauty and health of the planting.
The Basics of Soil: For Lawns
New lawn installations should start with basic soil considerations; physical and chemical soil analyses may be desired. Marginal soil conditions in existing lawns can be improved with cultural programs designed for the specific site. Regular aeration, vertical mowing, top dressing with compost or rich soil, proper fertility management and applications of foliar and soil biostimulants are all proven techniques for rejuvenating a poor lawn.
The Basics of Soil: For Roots
A properly balanced soil will support deep, extensive root systems, allowing plants to assimilate all available food and moisture. The result is a thick turf which resists drought, weeds and disease.
The Basics of Soil: Analysis
For basic physical soil analysis, use a soil probe or large, strong knife to cut samples at least six inches deep. Examine for thatch layer thickness, particle size and distribution, compaction and topsoil depth. A minimum of six inches of properly balanced soil is required to grow a healthy lawn. A thatch layer thicker than one-half inch will act like a sponge to limit the penetration of water and nutrients to the root system.
If necessary, consult with a qualified landscape professional for help with soil testing. Basic chemical soil tests (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and pH) can be handled through the county extension service. For very thorough soil analysis with written interpretation and recommendations, contact Integrated Fertility Management at (800) 332-3179.
The Basics of Soil: Healthy Soil grows Healthy Plants
What occurs below ground, unseen, largely determines what we see above ground. The knowledge of basic soil conditions is essential to proper cultural decisions and practices. Again, healthy soil grows healthy plants.
See our complete list of garden how-to articles here.
Subscribe to our Sustainable Gardens Newsletter and Receive a
About Dan Eskelson
Dan has had his hands in the soil for most of his adult life as a gardener, landscaping contractor, golf course superintendent and landscape designer. When the ground freezes, he builds websites, produces video and plays the hammered dulcimer. Full bio here.