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Tips to Maintaining Your Soil

Soil is the medium in which most plants develop. From the cultivator’s perspective, its most critical attributes are its profundity, its surface and its substance creation. It is fundamental to discover whatever you can about the kind of soil you have, however the route in which you adjust and enhance it is of significantly more noteworthy hugeness in figuring out what plants will develop effectively.

Profundity of the Soil

The topsoil is the basic layer for plant development. Its surface and piece for the most part rely on the parent shake from which it has continuously framed, by the communication with water, atmosphere and vegetation. Weathering specialists, for example, ice, rain and sun separate the stone over a huge number of years to shape the fundamental mineral structure of soil. Plants develop on the stone flotsam and jetsam and bunches of miniaturized scale living beings chip away at the dead roots and fallen leaves to rot them, creating the fundamental natural constituent of the topsoil, known as humus.

In some parts of the world however the soil bears no relation to the rock beneath it because it has been carried to its place by a natural force: the material pushed along by a glacier, for example, forms a type of soil known as boulder clay, and the silt washed down by rivers builds up into alluvial soils.

The depth of topsoil varies. A site recently left by a builder may have no top soil at all (or it may be covered by the subsoil layer), while in parts of the Mississippi Basin the rich alluvial deposits are 6 m (about 20 ft) deep. The average garden has between 300 mm and 600 mm (1 ft and 2 ft) of topsoil, but a depth of as little as 150 mm (6 in) is sufficient for growing a large number of plants.

You can test the depth of topsoil by the use of a soil auger, a tool like a giant corkscrew, which will bring up a sample of the soil profile, the several layers from which it is formed. A simpler test is to dig a hole with steep sides and to make the soil profile visible in that way. The hole will also show you how quickly the top or subsoil drains after rain.

For the revitalization of an old garden, many writers suggest removal of the soured topsoil and its replacement with new, but this is both difficult to obtain and expensive. (On the basis of the calculation that it takes 25 mm – 1 in – of topsoil a thousand years to develop, it is, of course, cheap.) When buying topsoil, it is important to establish its source and to be sure that it is ‘vegetable’ topsoil, with organic content, and free of disease and weeds. Beware especially of the roots of weeds such as couch grass.

A period of deep cultivation and the addition of plenty of organic material will increase the amount of topsoil already in a garden by encouraging bacteria to work within the top layers and subsoil.

Between topsoil and parent bed rock there may be many layers of stone and gravel, but the layer immediately beneath the top soil is generally the subsoil. Its depth varies according to the hardness of the underlying rock and the amount of erosion it has suffered. The colour and texture of subsoil are usually different from those of the top soil because it is in a transitional stage, without humus or organic material. For this reason it is not a growing medium.

Soil Texture

The texture of soil depends upon the size of the particles which make it up. All soils contain sand and clay in varying ratios but they are classified according to the dominant constituent, most readily identified by its particle size. The particle size is crucial because it controls the amounts of air and water which reach the roots of plants. Plants must have air to breathe and water to enable them to absorb their food in soluble form.

Clay soil chiefly consists of extremely fine particles. When these become wet, their composition causes them to swell and to stick together, so that they block air from the plants’ roots and make it hard for them to take in food in solution. Clay soil is heavy, difficult to work and cold, as a result of being frequently waterlogged and badly aired. When it does dry out, it tends to crack and there is a danger of plant roots being damaged.

Clay soils are naturally rich in plant nutrients but these are not always available because of air and water is blocked from the roots. The addition of humus-forming materials is essential to plant life and if this is done on a regular basis it can transform heavy clay into fertile workable soil.

The addition of horse stable manure, compost or peat gives clay soil a better texture, making it warmer, more aerated and less waterlogged. Lime will also help to break up clay and reduce its acidity but it should be used only after careful thought as many plants, such as rhododendrons and azaleas, will not tolerate it. It is very difficult to rid a soil of lime once it has been added. Never add lime and manure at the same time, as they interacted chemically.

Sandy soil is composed mainly of large gritty particles which do not cling together. As a result, water is absorbed easily but drains away fast, taking essential nutrients with it leaving plants undernourished and dry. Sandy soils soon become acid and generally need frequent but small applications of lime.

One advantage of sandy soil is that it is warm, because of the easy flow of air between large particles. The fact that it warms up quickly in spring makes it a suitable soil for early vegetable crops. In addition it is easy to dig and also to cultivate as organic matter is broken down fairly fast. Frequent watering and the addition of bulky organic material such as manure should greatly improve a sandy soil.

Strictly speaking, most garden soils are loam of one type or another. What gardeners commonly refer to as loam is the ideal growing soil, an optimum balance of sand, clay and humus. In reality the perfect loam rarely exists; most types of loam are either sandy or clayey. However the best loam is a rich, dark brown soil, made up of between 50 and 60 per cent sand particles to about 30 per cent clay. Its other constituent, humus, is the valuable organic compound formed by decayed vegetable and animal material. When broken down completely, it forms a blackish, powdery substance. In general, the darker soils are the richer ones, as they contain more organic matter. They tend to be warmer too, as they absorb more heat from the sun’s rays. This makes them early soils; they become workable before other soils in the spring.

Chemical Composition

Since parent rocks differ in mineral content, so too will the soil above them. Soil’s mineral (inorganic) constituents are as important to plant growth as its texture and its organic content. Sodium, potassium, phosphorus, nitrogen, magnesium, iron and calcium are among the inorganic substances essential to plants. Some of them, such as iron, rarely need replacement; others have to be replenished by fertilizers.

A chalky soil is one which contains a high level of calcium. It is formed through the breaking down of calcium carbonate (limestone rock) by the action of the weather. Chalky soil contains white particles (called caliche) and sometimes pieces of flint. The top soil is usually thin, allowing water to drain through and warming up quickly in the spring. It is very alkaline soil and heavy dressings of organic matter will be needed to counteract the excess lime as well as retain moisture.

Peaty soils are derived almost entirely from plants. They contain less than 50 per cent minerals and their high organic content makes them almost black in colour. Peat soils are usually wet, badly aerated and extremely acidy, but the addition of lime will help improve both conditions.

The pH scale is a scale of value for the degree of acidity or alkalinity of a soil. Soils below 7 are regarded as being acid, those above 7 as alkaline. A pH value of 7 indicated a neutral soil and an ideal garden reading is 6.5. Below 6 on the scale the extreme acidity of the soil makes it suitable only for acid-loving plants such as heathers and rhododendrons. A reading above 8 means that the soil is so alkaline that it will support few plants, due to essential foods being ‘locked up’ in the soil. However certain plants, such as carnations, sweet peas and onions, do prefer alkaline conditions.

One way to discover a great deal about soil – its type and fertility – is to observe the plants that grow in it naturally, including the weeds. There are also various home kits which test the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. Some register the pH value as a colour variation. It is advisable to take samples from various parts of the garden, as the level of acidity may vary from one area to another.

The level of acidity or alkalinity can be controlled by adding lime, peat and various chemicals such as sulphate of ammonia to the soil. Lime helps reduce the acid level of a peaty or sandy soil while peat and sulphur make a chalky soil less alkaline.

Cultivating the Soil

One of the best ways to improve your soil is to dig it, using a good spade or a fork for heavy clay soils. Digging will aerate the soil, kill the weeds and break up some of the subsoil so that the layer of topsoil is gradually increased. It should be done once a year, and autumn or early winter is the best time. This is particularly important with heavy clay soils, so that winter frosts will break up compacted lumps and prepare the ground for planting in spring.

Digging should be done in small spadefuls at a time otherwise the task cab be back breaking. The roots of persistent weeds, such as couch grass, bindweed, dock, thistles or nettles, should be removed and later burned. When turning over a large area the best method is to dig in trenches, working with the last trench in front of you.

Digging to the depth of a spade is usually sufficient but with a very heavy clay soil, or for a large vegetable patch, it may be necessary to turn over the soil to two spade-depths, known as double digging. Apart from the extra effort involved, double digging is also more complicated because it goes down to the second layer, the subsoil. It is important to keep the two layers separate, so the topsoil should be lifted out of the trench and kept aside while the subsoil is broken up and turned over. Add any organic materials at this stage, forking them in well with the subsoil.

Manure, Compost and Fertilizers

The addition of sufficient organic material, in the form of animal manure or vegetable compost, should cure the deficiencies of an infertile soil. In its decayed form it is known as humus and one way in which humus aids fertility is by strong nitrogen. The bacteria in the soil convert nitrogen into ammonia and this essential nutrient is released to the plan roots in the form of nitrates. Humus also absorbs and holds water so that the plant roots will have time to take it up.

The texture of any type of soil will be improved as the strands of decaying vegetation will break up a sticky clay soil but bind together the large particles of sandy soil. The spaces between the crumbs of soil are sufficient for the retention of moisture but they allow any excess water to drain away. The good soil structure and aeration created assist root development.

A mixture of horse manure and straw is regarded as the best soil conditioner, as it is particularly rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium and also contains good organic material. The nutrients are not in a form which can be immediately absorbed by plants but as the organic material begins to decay they are converted by bacteria into chemical salts. They will eventually be taken up by the plant roots in the form of nutrients, phosphates and potash at a slow, steady rate over a long period of time. If the ground is planted, stack fresh farmyard manure for a while before using it as ammonia may burn the plants.

Garden compost, formed from rotted down vegetable waste, is an excellent substitute as it returns to the soil all the materials taken out during plant growth and helps to improve the soil structure. It is a simple and economical matter to make a compost heap in the garden but careful though should be given to the sitting of it. Though it is preferable to place it out of full view, it should not be anywhere to damp or shady or the waster matter will not rot down correctly.

Many waste materials can go on to the compost heap, from kitchen waste such as lettuce leaves and vegetable peelings to grass cuttings, dead leaves and straw – but diseased plant roots, perennial weeds or woody steams should always be disposed of, for example, burning them on a fire. The successful decomposition of this waste material depends on air, water and the action of bacteria. The bacteria depend on nitrogen for food and the rate of decay can be accelerated by sprinkling the heap with a nitrogenous fertilizer such as sulphate of ammonia or by spreading a layer of farmyard manure over it.

Each 300mm (1 ft) layer of waster should be trodden or pressed down firmly to get rid of air pockets, and then watered. The compacted mass can be covered with a layer of soil, about 25 mm (1 in) thick, and then the farmyard manure or sulphate of ammonia if you are using it. Alternate layers can be covered with hydrated lime (unless your soil is naturally limy) instead. When the heap is the height you require, cover it with one more layer of soil and give it a watering.

Decomposition will be speeded up if the heap is turned about every six weeks, moving waste matter from the outside into the centre and watering any dry patches. In the absence of rain, water should be sprinkled on the heap periodically – about every two weeks during a dry summer. Too much rain, however, will wash away the nutrients in the compost heap; during a period of heavy rain fall, a temporary cover could be placed on top.

Compost can be regarded as sufficiently decayed when the individual components can no longer be distinguished. It should be crumbly, manure like mass, dark in colour; if the texture is slimy the heap has not been made up correctly. In warm weather, and given the right conditions, the waste will take only about two to three months to decay but in winter you can expect it to take about four to six months.

Artificial or inorganic fertilizers are concentrated chemical salt from natural underground deposits. They are available in liquid or power from and supply essential foods direct to plants, acting quickly when applied to moist soils; it is important to use the exact quantity stated and to distribute it as evenly as possible, as overdoses can be harmful. Fertilizers are available containing individual chemicals or you can buy a general one which combines the three main nutrients; nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).

While the application of artificial fertilizers helps to stimulate plant growth it does not improve the physical qualities of the soil. In fact over-application of these materials can cause soil deterioration by destroying bacteria. Soil texture can be improved by the addition of sterilized peat (moist, decomposing plant matter) but this has no mineral or food content at all.

Complex balance between its physiology, its humus content and its mineral content (shown by its pH value), once a gardener understands how each factor in the balance works, he has control over his plot, over what will grow and where.