Whatever you’re trying to grow, whether it is food, flowers, or trees, you need three essential elements, the sun, water, and good soil. Healthy soil contains all the nutrients that plants require to grow. If the soil isn’t healthy, you can use one of many ways to improve its soil health.
What is Healthy Soil?
The health of the soil refers to its quality. With a good quality soil, sunshine and water, you can grow almost anything in a garden or on a farm. Some of the essential components of good soil include:
Plants require several minerals to produce their fruits or blooms. For food-producing plants, not only does there need to be enough minerals for the plant to grow and produce, but those nutrients need to transfer to the animal or human who consumes the food. Some of the minerals plants need are:
About three to five percent of the soil is organic matter, which consists of decaying or dead plants and animals. This matter contributes to some of the essential elements which are sulfur, phosphorus, and nitrogen. Humus is the result of microorganisms breaking down organic matter, which is the basis for having a good quality soil.
Water is necessary for the metabolic process for microorganisms. It also helps transfer nutrients to plants.
The number of microorganisms in a small amount of soil easily outnumbers the human population of Earth. These microorganisms include:
Soil that is tilled, which is found in agriculture and landscaping, has more bacteria in it, while non-tilled soil like that in a forest, has more fungi in it.
Air or Atmosphere
Half of the volume of soil consists of pores that have water or air in them. The gases in soil air consist of:
Due to the respiration of microorganisms, soil air contains more carbon dioxide than the air humans and animals breathe.
Soil that is healthy can retain more water, approximately 20 times its weight, which can help crops grow during droughts. The US Department of Agriculture contends that if one percent of organic matter is present in the top six inches of soil, then it could retain 27,000 gallons of water per acre.
Is Your Soil Healthy?
Most people would not be able to tell good soil from bad just by looking at it. However, a soil analysis wouldn’t be cost effective for most home gardeners. So, how can you tell if your soil is healthy? Fortunately, you can find out about soil health with these simple observations.
The number of weeds in the garden is a good indicator of your soil's quality. If weeds seem to be sprouting everywhere, then your soil quality is likely poor. They tolerate poor soil well and can take over space and crowd out other plants.
You can quickly improve the soil by planting ground cover like clover because it suppresses weeds and helps prevent water and wind erosion. Also, mulch the soil to add organic matter to it and to suppress weeds. You may need to pull some weeds to eliminate some of them as well.
Dirt that is healthy will quickly absorb water. To test the rate of absorption, pour a glass of water over some dirt. If it only takes about five seconds to absorb the water, then your soil is probably fine. However, if it doesn’t absorb the water, then it could indicate poor quality soil.
Not being about to absorb water doesn’t bode well for trying to grow food as water is essential for growing plants. Also, the plants will be more susceptible to the hot sun, which could quickly kill your garden.
Presence of Earthworms
Dig down into the dirt about six inches or so to find out what is in it. If you find earthworms, that indicates your soil is healthy. Worms help aerate the soil by creating channels whenever they tunnel through it. These channels can then fill with water after it rains to supply air and water to the roots of the plants. Also, their castings (feces) add nutrients to the dirt too.
Plant Matter in the Dirt
When you dig into the dirt, you may see the remains of decaying plants in it from your last garden. This matter can help your soil retain water, suppress weeds, and prevent erosion. The soil shouldn't be too clean, or free from plant residue. Otherwise, it may not be healthy.
These tests do not cost anything to do, and they are a quick, easy way to check its health. A healthy soil will need less help from fertilizers and pesticides, so it can help grow food and save money in several ways.
Improving the Soil Health
Good quality soil is vital to food production as it provides the nutrients, oxygen, water, and root support that plants need to grow. It also produces healthy crops by controlling weeds, pests, and plant diseases. Healthy dirt can help to decrease climate change by increasing or maintaining its carbon content as well.
Healthy, living soil also doesn’t need as much chemical support to grow nutritious food. In fact, overusing chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides can destroy healthy soil. However, whether you produce a small garden or have a farm, if you don’t have good quality soil, you can improve it with these tips.
Soil disturbances can lead to poor quality soil as it exposes soil to wind and water erosion and environmental losses. Reducing the intensity, frequency, and depth of tillage can make the soil healthier. Attachments to tractors allow for reducing tillage by strip-tilling or reducing the amount of soil turnover.
Plant Ground Cover
The idea of planting ground cover is to try to have live roots in the dirt for as long as possible. Also, a ground cover, like clover, helps to reduce erosion and retains more water. Many farmers plant clover between crops to protect the soil, provide it with the nitrogen it needs, and reduce water evaporation. Mixing winter crops in with spring crops will also help improve the health of the soil.
Rotating two or three crops in the same field can help diversify the organic material in the soil, which makes it healthier. For instance, if you grow wheat, then you can also rotate the field with soybeans and corn. If you decide to grow a ground cover, then choose one with multiple species of plants in it.
Add Organic Amendments
No matter what size your crop is, if the soil is poor quality, then you can add organic amendments to it to improve its health. Organic amendments are materials containing plant or animal matter within them. For instance, if you have a home garden, consider adding grass clippings, wood chips, manure, wood ash or compost to the soil.
Add Inorganic Amendments
Putting inorganic materials in your garden can help retain water when rain is scarce, it reduces soil alkalinity, balances mineral content, and cuts down on the compaction of soil, among other benefits. Some of the inorganic substances you can add to the soil is sand, crushed granite or ceramic, lime, or perlite.
The type of soil that you have will call for different types of organic and inorganic materials to be added to achieve a healthy soil. If you live in a region like Georgia or Oklahoma with red clay dirt, you won't treat it the same as you would sandy soil in the desert states or rich black soil found in Kansas or other areas of the Great Plains and Midwest.
A healthy soil, no matter what type it is, consists of 45 percent mineral, five percent organic materials, 25 percent air, and 25 percent water. The variety of crops or plants grown in a garden or on a farm will depend on the type of soil. Ten states manage most of the food production in the US including:
These states combine for approximately $10 billion in agricultural cash receipts every year. Many of these same states have some of the highest quality soils in the US. In fact, the country has 17 percent of the world’s arable land, which is why America can export so much food.
Whether you want to grow crops on a small or large scale, this information about soil health can help you determine the quality of your soil, make improvements to it and help produce high quality, nutritious foods.