What Is It And Why Is It So Important To Garden Health?
One of the most overlooked elements when people want to start a garden is their soil health. The majority of the time, novice gardeners are more focused on the types of plants they want instead of the type of plants their growing conditions will allow.
They also overlook that if they want to grow their favorite “green babies”, but their existing conditions aren’t favorable, soil amendments will need to be made before putting the plants into the ground. Otherwise, the plant will end up stunted, diseased, not produce, or die. Such a waste of time, effort, and money!
Up until this year, I was one of those novice gardeners. It wasn’t until I was inspired to journey down the “back to basics” road that I found out I was doing everything wrong in the garden….literally, from the ground up!
What To Test For?
I started reading “Teaming With Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis and started to understand why soil health is so important. You see, soil acts a lot like the human body. In the body, we have many parts that function together to ensure our health. In addition to our organs, blood, bones, and nervous system we also have gut health, hormones, and more. The vitamins and minerals we put into our bodies have a huge affect on how well our bodies function.
In the same way, the PH, bacteria, fungi, bugs, density, and nutrients that make up the soil can have a huge effect on the health of the plants growing in it. There are endless things to consider when looking at soil health (just like the human body), but the most important are the following 4;
- Soil PH
Each of these have a huge impact on the health of your soil, and ultimately, the health of your plants. I’ll dive deeper into each one a little further down the post. First, I want to explain how you can get a baseline for your current gardening situation
How Do I Start?
The easiest way to figure out where your soil stands in each PH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium is with a Luster Leaf Rapitest soil test. I prefer to use their four pack test kit because it’s more fun and interactive for my kiddos (plus, it’s a little cheaper), but they also have a digital version for those of you who want faster results.
Once you have your results, you can then create a plan to amend your soil for ideal gardening conditions. The Rapitest package includes suggestions for how to fix each deficiency.
Order your Rapitests below to get on your way to soil health!
Soil PH is the same as PH in the human body. Too low of a PH results in an acidic body whereas too high of a PH results in an alkaline body. But, too much on either side of the spectrum can create a variety of problems. It’s best to be somewhere in the middle. In soil PH, the best place to be is between 5.5 and 7.
If the PH is lower that 5.5, the soil is too acidic. What happens when the soil is too acidic? Your plants will get limited nutrients and soil toxins will increase. They might turn yellow, have stunted growth, develop fungal diseases, poor bacteria (which is vital to plant health), or be overcome by weeds.
If your soil is too alkaline (7.5 or higher), your plants won’t be able to absorb nutrients and will have too high calcium carbonate. Too much calcium carbonate means that the soil will be too porous and not able to retain water. This means your plants will constantly be thirsty, unable to be quenched.
Nitrogen is the most important nutrient in your soil. It also helps regulate water and nutrient absorption in your plants. It’s vital for growth and the photosynthesis process.
If you’ve read my post In The Beginning There Was Permaculture – Part 1, you’ve probably noticed that “nitrogen fixers” are one of the vital plant categories needed to ensure permaculture gardening success. That is due to the importance of having adequate nitrogen in the soil.
Without proper nitrogen soil levels, plants will have yellow leaves, leaves that fall off, no fruits or flowers, stunted growth, or die.
Phosphorous in the next important nutrient. According to Aces.edu, phosphorous is the “key in capturing, storing, and converting the sun’s energy into biomolecules.” Phosphorous “promotes root growth, winter hardiness, seed formation, and increases water use efficiency.” That’s a lot of vital plant processes!
Phosphorous deficiency can happen because of too low PH, too dense of soil, overwatering, cold conditions, or plants using it faster than it can be replaced.
The deficiency causes dark purple leaves, stunted growth, and general lack of thriving.
Potassium is a vital plant nutrient for disease resistance and water movement. Too low of soil potassium results in similar issues as the other two vital nutrients; plant yellowing, wilting, small leaves, stunted growth, lack of yields, and possible plant death.
The potassium levels can drop due to soil temperature, too high/low PH levels, lack of soil oxygen (too densely packed, like clay types), and nutrient deficiencies.
Potassium is another nutrient that benefits from a permaculture style garden. As leaves and other organic matter drop onto the soil surface, it begins to decay. It creates a natural, nutrient dense mulch that will be absorbed into the ground for the other plants to absorb. Without nutrient replacement, soil gets sucked dry and becomes depleted relatively quickly.
I started my test by taking a sample at my land’s future garden location. The first thing I did was test the PH. It was the fastest test and I was excited to see the results.
I filled the container to the dirt fill line. Then, I added water to the water fill line. I poured the green capsule into the dirt/water mixture and gave it a good shake. I put the container down and waited 1 minute. When the time was up, I took a peek.
It was the perfect PH! 6.5, slightly acidic is the perfect growing condition for most vegetable garden plants. There’s always exceptions, but generally speaking, I’m off to a good start! I then had my hubby scoop the remaining dirt clump into a bowl for further testing at home.
Once I got home, I proceeded with the rest of the tests. I scooped 1 cup of the dirt into a container with 5 cups of water. I stirred for 1 minute then let it rest in a quiet place until it settled. Turns out, our soil is quite dense, so it took almost the whole 24 hours before it was ready for testing.
Once it was ready, I used the pipette to fill each sample container to it’s fill line. I broke each coordinating capsule into it’s test tube and set the timer for 10 minutes.
After the perfect PH reading, I had high hopes for great nutrient results! Unfortunately, all the test results came back as barely adequate, or deficient. What a bummer!
In reality, it’s a great thing for you, readers! After all, if my land was in pristine growing conditions, I wouldn’t have to take the next step in gardening prep…soil amending!
How To Fix?
Soil amending is simply the process of adding vitamins to the soil to remedy the deficiencies. Think of it like us taking multivitamins to compensate for our vitamin deficiencies. When we don’t get the nutrition we need, we supplement it to keep ourselves healthy and balanced.
This is fairly easy to do now that we know the specific problems. Our PH is great, so there is no need to be proactive there. If you’re not quite as lucky, the Grow It Organically post Changing Soil PH To Match Plant Needs is a great place to start. I prefer to stick to the organic way as chemically altering soil can cause more headache (and health issues) than it’s worth. Quick is not always better!
If you need to fix the nitrogen, phosphorous, or potassium…look for quality, organic fertilizers and manure. Compost is also great soil amender! Banana peels, coffee grounds, egg shells, and wood ash are all great ways to add great nutrients back into your sol. Keeping your garden area mulched will also help foster happy soil!
After you’ve discovered your soil condition, then amended it accordingly, the best way to KEEP your ground healthy and plant-ready is through the practice of permaculture.
Permaculture focuses on grouping plants together to reduce the risks of nutrient deficiencies and imbalanced PH like listed above. It mimics proven balanced ecosystems to not only keep PH and nutrients in line, but to reduce weeds, pests, and diseases. The results will be healthier plants and much higher yields. Who wouldn’t want that?
Your garden’s health starts with the soil. There is still so much more to learn, but for now, knowing your soil’s PH, nitrogen, phosphorous, and potassium is a great first step to soil success!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this nerd-hour post as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I have sample #2 (my current yard’s dirt) settling for testing as we speak. I’ve loved science since I was a little kid. I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to run a second “study” and compare the soils’ results. Can’t wait to see how it turns out!
Stay tuned as I keep you all posted on my soil amending journey. I plan on spending the upcoming snowy, winter months researching how to fix my soil’s nutrient deficiencies naturally and sustainably. I can’t wait to hit the ground running next spring!