3 Major Components of Soil & Their Importance
Hello my fellow plant lovers,
As weather warms and the days become longer, it feels that spring is finally here. Along with this feeling of freshness comes the beautiful urge to bring life to dormant seeds of so many varieties. It is truly such a gift of life that we can nurture, and reap the rewards of the seeds we sow, just as we should do with ourselves throughout life. To ensure these seeds (and ourselves) have everything they need for healthy growth and fruitful harvests, we must ensure that our foundations are strong and alive. Sometimes some of us can feel lost when it comes to soils and understanding what it needs can be difficult. With this article I hope to break it down a little further and make it more digestible.
Soil is such a special medium on earth, not just dirt, but a thriving ecosystem that could put all of the cities in the world combined to shame in a single tablespoon! (There are over 50 billion microbes alone per tablespoon of healthy soil!) Nikola Tesla once said, "If you only knew the magnificence of the 3, 6 and 9, then you would have the key to the universe.", and I have found that the number 3 has been quite common in my research of soil. Therefore, we are going to focus on 3 major components of soil: soil structure, nutrient balance, and thriving microbial life.
Soil structure is also generally based on 3 main components: drainage, water holding capacity, and aeration. You may have come across the terms sand, loam, and clay which all express the qualities of soils around the world and all vary in their abilities to achieve the 3 main components. All plants will require a varying degree of each of these components to ensure healthy root growth, and the ability to uptake nutrients (based on electrical conductivity; or EC, which will be discussed in nutrient balance).
An interesting way to determine the quantity of each of these components is to take a handful of soil from wherever you intend to grow, and place it in a mason jar (be sure to remove rocks, and plant matter if possible). Fill the jar with water and give it a good shake. Then leave it undisturbed for 24 hours. The heavier particles (clay and sand) will begin to separate and sink to the bottom quickly while it will take longer for the lighter materials to separate into a distinguishable layer. After 24 hours, you should be able to see your 3 separate layers and determine the soil structure of your sample.
Most plants will prefer a sandy loam (good drainage & aeration, but also good water holding capacity) to a high content of clay, as clay has very poor drainage and aeration properties. Do not count out clay though as it has a very high EC which will help your plant uptake essential nutrients. This should help you determine which amendments you need to add to your garden this summer! Generally you will not need to add clay so just focus on balancing the soil with sand or loam. A 1:1:1 mix of peat moss, compost, and aeration (ricehulls, perlite, vermiculite, etc.) is a great place to start to provide a balanced soil structure and sustain healthy plants for years!
In nature, soils receive their nutrients from decaying organic matter (plants & animals), and rocks. Organic matter is decomposed by the help of animals (through digestion), and most importantly the microbial life beneath our feet. Minerals from rocks are generally deposited into soils through weathering, and chemical reactions from bacteria & fungi (more on this in Thriving Microbial Life). All of these nutrients & minerals play a pivotal role in the fertility of soil.
Everything in this life in made out of energy, and energy can come in many forms. The form most commonly associated with soils when referring to nutrients is Electrical Conductivity (EC for short). All nutrients within soils, as well as the main components that make up soil structure has an EC associated with them. It is extremely important to ensure that this energy is balanced between nutrients, or they will begin opposing each other; ultimately causing deficiencies. An extremely beneficial resource to view this relationship on paper is called the Mulder's Chart. This chart shows how an increase, or decrease of one nutrient, can lead to the decrease, or increase in uptake of another. I believe this explains why it is sometimes so difficult to assess a plant deficiency. *For example: Your plant may be showing signs of a calcium deficiency, so the obvious answer is; add more calcium! But as you will see from this chart, there could simply be an imbalance somewhere else in the system that is causing this, and by adding more calcium, you actually create an even bigger problem that eventually becomes impossible to diagnose! The best way to ensure your system is balanced is to get it tested. Most Universities or local laboratories offer soil testing for very reasonable prices and can save you a lot of headache down the road! Another option is to purchase ready-made soil blends which already have this taken into consideration. But it is just so much more fun and rewarding to get your hands dirty, and learn about the way our earth has provided us food to live for millions of years!
Although this part may seem a little more science based and complicated, there is one rule of thumb in growing & soil that I want to leave you with. KEEP IT SIMPLE! As with life, you can make anything as complicated as you want. Compost is your best friend and will contain a healthy balance of nutrients and minerals to support plant life. #supportlocalfarms *Note: You can always top dress to provide soils with extra nutrients & minerals down the road.
Thriving microbial life
I truly left the best for last as this topic really is the most important part of this article, and so dear to my heart. Depending on the microbial content of your soil, it can actually completely change the structure! Microbial life, especially bacteria and fungi create a slime that binds particles together. There have actually been sandy soils that have acted exactly like a loam due to this!
Microbes are the magic that makes plants grow; and there is debate whether or not plants would grow at all without them. Plants excrete proteins, enzymes, DNA, sugars and amino acids through their roots which allow microbial life to survive. In turn these microbes increase water retention, increase nutrient cycling/availability, and best of all, protect the plant. We should all model this symbiotic relationship in our own lives. If we continue to take and never give back, there will be nothing left. We need to also emulate this mindset when looking at soil. Give back to your soil and you will harvest for life. *There is a very thought provoking section of "Teaming With Microbes" that goes as such: "Soil bacteria and fungi are like small bags of fertilizer, retaining in their bodies nitrogen and other nutrients they gain from root exudates and other organic matter.". The bacteria and fungi consume nutrients and fertilize the soil directly at the root zone when they poop, die, or when they are consumed by larger microbes and continue the same cycle. When you have a healthy microbial population in your soil, it feeds itself!
Using chemical fertilizers & pesticides absolutely destroy these populations. We wonder why we need to keep using more fertilizers and more pesticides to grow and protect our food. We killed off the things that have been doing that naturally since this earth was born! Rivers, lakes, and oceans are polluted by fertilizer run-off that can't be kept in the soil because there is nothing to bind the soil particles together to create structure. It is time to give back to the soils, and create a better world for not just us, but all of the life that we cannot see on this planet. *Sad Fact: Did you know that salt based liquid fertilizers are only 10% efficient? This means if you spent $100, you are only getting $10 worth. On top of that, the salts in it probably killed whatever microbes were left meaning you need even more next time! Get the beneficial biology back in your soils and if you use liquid nutrients, make sure they are from natural sources. I know I know, salt is natural, but not when it comes to your plants.
To finish on a bright side, here is one more *Fun Fact: Did you know that plants have an extremely hard time uptaking most nutrients on their own? Most nutrients are considered "immobile", meaning the roots cannot absorb them in their raw form. Mychorrhizal fungi excretes acids as it moves through the soil that break down these raw nutrients and the hyphae (stands of fungi) will absorb the broken down nutrients and send it directly back to the roots! The bacteria will consume these nutrients at the root zone, breaking them down through digestion and pooping out high quality plant available nutrients! This reinforces the idea that microbes truly are small bags of fertilizer, just waiting to feed your plants.
I hope this wasn't too scattered and gives you a bit of a better idea of what is going on beneath our feet, and hopefully gives you some direction for this years growing season. If you ever have any questions, please text, call, or email me anytime, I love talking about these topics and would be happy to speak with you!