We walk on it, build on it, eat from it; yet, there are many of us that do not give the soil a second thought as we dig holes in it to grow our favorite tree or flower or vegetables. I know it is a boring subject without the glamor of exotic plants or colorful array of flowers; yet, it is the most important element of any successful landscape/garden. We have numerous television shows exploring the universe with its wonders which can be translated to a parallel universe below our feet, soil.
Generally speaking, we have about a 90% mineral content, and about 10% decayed organic matter contained within a typical garden. This soil supports a community of insects and microorganisms. By adding organic matter to your soil, you provide nourishment for microorganisms that release nutrients into the soil as they decompose the organic matter. Earthworms are not just great for fishing, they provide aeration to the soil and provide more organic matter with their waste matter decomposition. The same holds true for soil-dwelling insects.
There are many facets to the soil. We have texture, structure, pH, organic matter, and fertility.
When one talks about soil texture, they are referring to the size of the soil particles. Sand particles are large and irregularly shaped giving one a coarse feeling. It drains well and does not compact easily. Another irregularly shaped particle is silt. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have clay which has microscopic particles that are almost flat which makes it easy to pack and leaves no space for air or water to move around. Soil's best companion is sandy loam. It is considered ideal garden soil consisting of a mixture of three basic textures. Hang on; this does not mean buying sand to add to your clay soil or vice versa. Remember, mixing sand and clay will give you cement. Balancing soil textures is an art and requires additional planning.
Now let us exam soil structure. The structure is the way soil clumps together. One can readily determine what their soil texture is by testing. Squeeze a handful of damp soil into a ball in your hand. If you poke the ball lightly, it probably is sand. If a bit more pressure is needed, you are dealing with silt. If nothing happens when you poke it, it is clay. The keyword here for good soil is crumbly. There are two proven methods of improving your soil structure, soil-dwelling insects and organic matter which loosen and enrich the soil and provide food for the soil-dwelling insects.
How many times have you heard the term soil pH, this plant likes acidic soil, this plant likes alkaline soil. What does it all mean? The pH factor is a scale of 1 – 14 with seven being neutral, Anything below 7, the soil is acidic and anything above seven the soil is alkaline. Most plants prefer a pH in the neutral range. Rule of thumb, if your plants are growing healthy and well, your pH is probably fine. If you are having problems, test your soil.
One of society's biggest problem is they have become very tidy landscapers and tend to remove any dead plant material that falls onto our lawns. It would be so beneficial to our garden if the fallen leaves were allowed to naturally take their course were they eventually would feed our soil, prevent erosion and mulch the soil. Organic matter contains acids that can make plant roots more permeable, improve their absorption of water and nutrients, dissolve minerals within the soil, leaving them for plant roots.
Last but not least, soil fertility. The nutrients in your soil are an essential component in building healthy soil. This principle applies not only to plants but to us too. We take multivitamins to ward off the evil spirits of disease and to maintain a healthy body, well, proper nutrients in the soil does the same for all your plants. Remember, organic fertilizers are released slowly enabling the plants to feed as they need to and there is not a sudden change in the soil composition which may harm microbial activity.