A plant needs three things to grow: air, water, and soil.
You wouldn’t neglect to water your plants or douse them in contaminated water. Likewise, you wouldn’t starve a plant of air, or place it next to an exhaust. Soil health is an equally important but often overlooked part of this triad, and neglecting it is as surefire a way to kill your plants as any of the above.
After all, if you’re frustrated at your growth results or hoping to brush up on some common mistakes and misconceptions before you get planting for the season, why not begin at the ground floor (so to speak).
However, maintaining healthy soil goes beyond mere growing gains. It’s a vital part of the ecosystem, no different than cleaning up litter. Monitoring your soil health, therefore, isn’t just something that you should do for your own sake; it’s a duty to the environment that you can take into your own hands and help out with.
How to Monitor
Monitoring your soil can be done in three ways; biologically, chemically, and physically. Biologically monitoring your soil is pretty tricky for a layman (unless you have good enough vision to see a nematode!), so let’s concentrate on the other two.
Physical monitoring is the easier option for checking your soil for a layperson without laboratory testing conditions. It’s quick to do, so it’s perfect for a spot check – especially if you have a lot of patches to check up on.
- Go out to your soil and take a sample, then sieve any small roots or gravel over 2mm from it. This sample should fit in the palm of your hand, not too much over or under.
- Dampen the soil a little and begin to knead it like playdough into a rough circle/ovaloid.
- Keep kneading for 1-2 minutes (adding more soil or water if you have to) until it’s no longer stick, and is no longer changing in plasticity.
- Slide your thumb along the soil ovaloid to create a ribbon (as shown in the above picture) about 2mm thick and 1cm wide.
- Consult Table 1 here and check your results to see how your soil measures up.
Chemical monitoring can comprise of a few tests, depending on what you’re using it for. Most commonly, you’re going to be testing the soil’s pH level.
You can buy a pH test kit online very easily; they’re used for a bunch of things, including fish tanks and common garden tasks. Once you have it, follow the instructions to figure out your soil’s pH level.
An ideal pH level should be anywhere between 5.5 and 8. The scale ascends logarithmically, so any deviation is a lot larger than it looks. The difference between 8 and 9 might not seem like much on a numerical level, but the actual acidity of the soil will be hugely compromised.
What are the benefits of keeping healthy soil?
Healthy soil comprises a fertile ecosystem, full of bugs, fungi, and microorganisms. All of these things feed off of the nutrients that are found naturally and that we pump into the soil, as well as matter derived from plant life growing there. In return, they provide benefits to the plant life and keep the healthy system flourishing.
Promoting a healthy soil culture in your plantings will benefit you immensely. By providing the climate that your plants need to grow, you’re also going to be feeding a complex chain of fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and arthropods that’ll fight off diseases and cycle nutrients into the right forms to be digested by plants.
You’ll see gains in your growth, and in the general biodiversity of your garden. Promoting an ecosystem works the whole way up:
- First you’ll attract microorganisms, that help plant life and perform various tasks that your plants require.
- Next, larger Arthropods will begin to chow down on the small bacterial things.
- These, in turn, are ripe to be eaten by birds, who will debug any larger creatures that you don’t want around (and if you’re making a garden, nobody’s going to say no to a few beautiful Australian birds flocking around). Note that this system also comes with the downside of attracting a few vermin, so make sure to protect your plants as you usually would.
To the Environment:
As you might have guessed, helping yourself out also helps the environment. Keeping a healthy soil food web means that all plant and animal life benefits.
However, the main benefit that the environment will see is arguably what you’re not doing, rather than what you are.
By maintaining a healthy soil culture, rather than resorting immediately to chemicals to promote growth, you’re going to be giving the soil a breath of fresh air. In lieu of a natural progression, chemicals distort the chain — they’ll provide the nutrients that your plants need, but they’ll kill off the bacteria that it needs to thrive long term.
Over time, your plants will have less and less natural ways of generating nutrients and will become dependant upon the chemicals. It’s unsustainable without a major soil overhaul in the long run, and it won’t provide any benefit to the larger environment while you’re doing it.