Gardening starts with the soil…
Make sure you have the best soil possible.
Soil is the top layer of the Earth’s surface like the frosting on a cake.
It is the stuff that grass grows on and that baseball players play on.
You probably call it dirt. Soil is made up from rocks that have been broken into millions of tiny pieces and then got mixed together with organic matter (tiny living creatures, rotting plant and animal parts), air spaces and water.
Plants need all of these things to be healthy. In the garden, it’s all about ingredients, texture, and chemistry.
SPECIAL NOTE for KIDS:
A good kid-friendly site that describes soil is one published by the Bureau of Land Management. Click here.
Soil “texture” is how the soil is “built”… it’s structure, what it is made up of and the size of its parts. The soil has to be “built” well so the plants roots can grow through it and absorb the right amounts of water, air and nutrients.
Soil texture depends on the amounts of sand, silt and clay it holds. Sand constitutes the biggest pieces of soil particles and feels gritty to the touch.
You can judge the soil texture by the way the soil feels between your fingers. Just like the texture of a piece of cloth can be smooth like the cotton in your underwear or bumpy like the lining in your slippers, soil can be CLAY (smooth and shiny) or SANDY (dry and gritty.) Most soil lies somewhere in between. The goal is to improve the soil to become what is called LOAM.
- SANDY SOIL
Sand constitutes the biggest pieces of soil particles and feels gritty to the touch. soils tend to be nutrient-poor since water and nutrients rapidly drain through the large spaces between the particles of sand. These soils also tend to be low in beneficial microbes and organic matter that plants thrive on.
Next in size are the silt particles which are slippery when wet and powdery when dry.If the soil feels smooth like talcum powder, it is silty. Silty soils are dense and do not drain well. They are more fertile than either sandy or clay soils.
- CLAY SOIL
The smallest pieces are clay. Clay soil is made up of very small, flat mineral particles or pieces. When it gets wet, these tiny particles pack together very tightly making it difficult for roots to get through or to breathe. If the soil is too tightly packed, water cannot get through either and so the soil holds too much water. When that happens there is no room for air and the plant can drown just like people do!
THE FIX: How to Improve Your Soil
The goal is to have loose and fluffy soil, filled with air that plant roots need, that has plenty of minerals essential for vigorous plant growth. It is alive with living organisms, like earthworms, fungi and bacteria that help maintain the quality of the soil. Proper pH is also an essential characteristic of healthy soil.
If you soil is too sandy, mix 3-4 inches of organic matter (like compost) into the dirt. Be sure to use wood chips, leaves, hay, straw or bark to mulch around plants and add at least 2 inches of organic material each year.
SOIL CHEMISTRY: ACID OR ALKALINE
And now let’s look at chemistry. Chemistry is the study of “matter”… the stuff that has mass and occupies space. Although there are countless types of matter all around us, most everything is one of the 100 chemical elements or a combination of those elements. understanding the basic properties of the elements and learning how to predict and explain how what happens when they combine to form new “stuff” is what chemistry is all about.
Chemistry happens inside our bodies when the food we eat is broken down into the building blocks our bodies need grow and stay alive. Plants get “building blocks” from the soil and then transform them into .
The pH scale runs from 1 to 14. A measurement of 7 means the soil is neutral. Below 7 means the soil is acid, and over 7 means it is alkaline.
Most plants like a soil pH close to neutral or about 6.5, just a little on the acid side.
In Acid soils
- Calcium (Ca), and magnesium (Mg) are less available to plants.
- Aluminum (Al) and manganese (Mn) may reach toxic levels. P
- hosphorus is tied up by iron (Fe) and aluminum (Al).
- Bacteria grow poorly as well.
Carrots, eggplant, sweet corn and potatoes like acidic soil, about 5.5
In Alkaline soils…
- phosphorus (P) gets tied up by Ca and Mg.
- Iron (Fe), zinc (Zn) and manganese (Mn) are less available.
- Sometimes excess salts accumulate and potatoes are subject to bacterial diseases.
Cabbage and cauliflower will grow fine at that level and also as alkaline as 7.5
Your plants can’t go to the store to pick up food.
They need to get minerals and chemicals they need from the soil around them.