Picture to yourself an enormous factory manned by innumerable workers, each one assigned to his task of converting raw materials into more finished goods.
Each worker toiling endlessly, never off the job, without even time off for meals, pushed steadily by several relentless bosses, living and dying on the job and being immediately replaced by others.
The Factory Called Soil
Such is the immense communal factory that we call the soil. The raw materials are undecomposed particles of rock and organic matter.
The workers are the various forms of:
- … and their allies
The bosses are aeration, moisture, and heat.
Without these teeming multitudes, the soil would really remain as inert as it looks to the eye. Without the complete domination by the bosses and their continued presence, the work would cease.
First demoralization would ensue, to be followed by the actual death of the workers. And of course, the raw materials must be present, though the undecomposed rocks are not enough.
Organic matter is needed and frequently additional minerals lacking in the original rock. All these are foods for the immense army of workers toiling for you.
To keep this factory active and productive, to maintain its operations at maximum efficiency, care is obviously necessary.
Not only do the organisms, but the plants growing in the soil as well, require sufficient air in order to thrive. This means proper tillage, cultivation, and drainage.
Without this needed air, many organisms perish, the roots of plants fail to develop, the various chemical changes which should occur cannot take place.
Water An Important Essential
Water is another essential, and so its application and drainage also are important.
Then, too, many soils lack certain elements needed for growth, and these have to be supplied for the same kind of reasons that we have to be supplied balanced rations to keep our systems in working order.
Temperature is still another prime factor in growth and so it likewise has to be accounted for.
The soil, then, which is the natural medium for the growth of plants, is produced from weathered rocks and decomposing animal and vegetable matter, by the action of such natural forces as sun and rain and air, and by the myriads of organisms working steadily for us.
We cannot assume, therefore, once a good soil, always a good soil.
For it’s a heritage that must be conserved. It cannot be neglected. It’s like the story of the farmer who left his barn door unlocked one night and lost a valuable horse by so doing. All his regrets and the resolve not to let it happen again will not bring hack the horse.
So it is with soil – neglect may cause trouble and irreparable damage.
How To Start With Good Garden Soil
Considering these needs, let’s take the actual steps which will give its the proper start in making a “good” soil.
First, the incorporation of manure helps:
- Induce the many organisms to develop quickly
- Provide the aeration needed
- Hold the quickly evaporating water in the summer
- Supply the needed hormones for plant growth
- Add a certain amount of nutrition to the soil
The manure may be from any source, natural or man-made, of straw, litter, leaves or other plant debris, together with a complete fertilizer added for quick decomposition.
About a ton per 1000 square feet of garden area is a sufficient amount.
To give us the proper structure, to produce air conditioning in the soil, it is necessary at times to mix with our soil some foreign material.
Thus, to clay soil, sand or coal cinders may be added, while for sandy soil a mixture of clay or peat moss or manure would be really beneficial.
If you were able to peep underneath the surface of an air-conditioned soil, and one which is stuffy with the spaces between particles filled with water and toxic gases, you would marvel at the difference in the activity of the roots.
In the well-aerated soil you would note little white roots spreading out like a network of roads, pushing here, pushing there, and in the process absorbing the needed nutrients for the plant.
On the other hand, the roots in a “poor” soil would be skimpy, stubby, and frequently brown.
The growth under such conditions would be slow, and upon the slightest provocation the tops would wilt and, what is more, would be subject to diseases and pests in a larger measure.
Then we must be sure that surplus water has a chance to drain off. Most plants don’t like “wet feet.”
In fact, only those with specially adapted organs can survive in constantly wet soils. So if natural drainage is not available, tiling is essential.
Proper drainage not only gives the plants a greater chance for existence, but it allows soils to become warmer sooner in the spring. That warmth causes the various compounds to become more readily available to plants through their roots.
All these preliminary preparations lead us to the all-important point:
The necessary nutrients in the soil which, when taken into the plant, are manufactured and stored inside as foods which, in turn, are essential in the formation of cells, their development, and growth.
Growth is nothing more than the laying down of new cells. Have you ever stopped to consider what a wonderful mechanism the plant is?
The leaves take in the carbon dioxide from the air, obtain through the roots water and nutrients from the soil, and, in the presence of light, manufacture foods that are distributed throughout the entire system.
There are many elements in the soil that are needed for the growth of plants once they are changed into proper forms.
First by the minute organisms in the soil so they may be absorbed by the roots, and later compounded within the plant in such a manner as to be usable in growth.
When you buy a complete fertilizer you will find an analysis on it which may be a 4-12-4 or 10-6-4 or some other combination.
This merely indicates the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in the mixture. There are others present in forms of impurities, but by law they do not have to appear in the analysis shown. Yet many of these are extremely important.
Let us consider them briefly.
- Nitrogen is associated with stem and leaf growth, and coloration of flowers.
- Phosphorus energizes the plants, produces greater root development, strengthens stems and gives earlier flowering.
- Potassium is like a tonic in that it acts as a conditioner. It plays its part in root development, stem strength, deeper color in flowers, and in general vitality.
These elements are always mentioned as the most essential, but actually they are no more so than others to be mentioned, except for the fact that many of the so-called “lesser” or “trace” elements are required in smaller quantities and are frequently present in the soil in sufficient amounts so that their addition is not necessary.
Iron is an example. Without iron the green coloring (chlorophyll) would not be adequate in food manufacture. For more details read our article on chelated iron for plants here.
Or without calcium (lime), roots would not develop and stems would be weak. In some manner, the others, such as magnesium, manganese, sulphur, zinc and boron, play a role that spells health for the plant.
The addition of these elements in some soils seems to work magic upon plants. That has been the case, for instance, in the use of zinc with roses, or iron with oaks, or boron with beets.
Fortunately, many of our complete fertilizers contain these materials, usually added to the mixture or else present as impurities to take care of soil conditions where they may be lacking naturally or become depleted through years of use.
Specific recommendations for the application of these mixed fertilizers cannot be made for all localities and all soils.
At present, the soil test methods have been developed a degree where sufficient accuracy may be obtained to be relied on.
Hence a test of the soil will indicate what to apply.
Luster Leaf 1601 Rapitest Test Kit for Soil pH, Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potash
Quick, at home results for Soil pH, Nitrogen, Phosphrous and Potash. Easy-to-use soil test kit. Simple, detailed instructions included. Great for beginners and experienced gardeners alike.
The Organic Fad
This brings us to the present fad of “organic” gardening, the advocates of which try to convey the impression that the use of the so-called “chemical” fertilizers is injurious to the soil and hence to plants.
- The beneficial organisms in the soil thrive better
- More flavor and even more food value are to be expected in fruits and vegetables
- Insects and diseases are reduced materially, etc.
Although there is a little truth in these claims, they are nevertheless grossly exaggerated, and the gardener is led to believe that the minute he applies a complete inorganic fertilizer to his soil, he might as well bid his plants goodbye.
For reasons already stated, soil science does, of course, go part way with these “organic” faddists, in that it has always advocated the use of organic matter in soil but with the addition of inorganic fertilizers to supplement any deficient materials.
Likewise, our findings show that all the ballyhoo about the usefulness of worms in the soil, and in particular the so-called “hybrid” earthworms (these actually cannot be produced), has little foundation in fact.
Earthworms cannot thrive in a soil devoid of organic matter, so when you add organic material, you add all that is needed. The addition of earthworms is quite superfluous and does not make plant growth any better.
The LAWN is a permanent crop and should be treated as such in preparing the soil for it.
The incorporation of manure or a cover crop, together with an addition of complete fertilizer (4-12-4), is insurance of an auspicious start.
Once established, complete fertilizers may be used which contain more nitrogen, and preferably those which are made at least partially of organic materials so as to last longer in the soil and be safer in application.
Such mixtures as 4-12-4 may be used at the rate of 2 pounds to 100 square feet, while the higher nitrogen mixtures should be applied at half this rate.
Usually, about three doses during the season are sufficient, and when used the soil should be moist and after applying the fertilizer should be watered in.
Roses do better in heavier soils. They require high nitrogen and high potassium, so that in addition to the complete fertilizer, nitrogen and potash may be needed during the season.
Ammonium sulphate or nitrate of soda (1 ounce to 2 gallons of water, or 1 pound to 100 square feet) may be used for nitrogen, and hardwood ashes, tobacco stems, or muriate of potash for the potassium.
EVERGREENS may be treated at the start in a manner similar to lawns, but later on, the acid-forming fertilizers (cottonseed meal or tankage) are advantageous, particularly on rhododendrons and azaleas.
LARGE TREES likewise require complete fertilizers. They are rarely fed enough.
Using a punch bar and spacing holes about 18″ inches apart and 12″ to 18″ inches deep, a complete fertilizer may be used in the spring or fall and midsummer at the rate of about 5 pounds to every inch of tree diameter.
The holes may be punched between the stem and beyond the outer rim of the branches.
Spading of manure into the soil in the fall, together with the addition of 20 percent superphosphate, is desirable. This material can be applied at the rate of 5 pounds for every 100 square feet of garden area and worked into the soil.
Bonemeal at the same rate may be substituted. Additions of complete fertilizers are best left until spring, as soon as growth starts in the ease of perennials and after annuals have become established and growing.
A second application of a complete fertilizer is usually advisable in mid-summer.
Generally, a 4-12-4 or 5-10-5 fertilizer answers the purpose at 3 to 4 pounds per 100 square feet. Various trademarked liquid fertilizers may be substituted for the dry materials.
by Alex Laurie | Edits by Plant Care Today Staff