Published on August 2nd, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans
Cultivating Balanced Soil for Healthy Plants
When we lack nutrients, we seek out foods and supplements that provide
those nutrients and power us back to a healthy balance.
Apply the same methodology to your soil’s nutrient needs, and you’ll
be enjoying the benefits of a delicious harvest or a varicolored sea of flowers
that comes from a bed of rich and balanced soil.
Adding organic compost is a popular strategy for improving soil quality. But before you feed your soil anything that seems nutritious and bears an organic label, make sure you discover exactly what it needs!
It is crucial to understand the structure and the chemical-nutrient balance of your soil in order to know which type of compost will create the best environment for your plants.
When your soil is dry, take a sample by digging down 12 inches and examining the soil’s composition. You may have sandy soil, clay, or a combination of sand, silt, and clay, a.k.a. “loam”. The compost you choose should work to mitigate any characteristics of the soil that are not conducive to a healthy growing environment.
pH Testing and Balancing
You will also want to test the pH balance of your soil to determine if it is overly acidic or too alkaline for vibrant plant growth. This applies especially if your plants display signs of nutrient deficiency or if growth is minimal.
Take your sample to a local nursery or garden center for testing or pick up a pH test kit there. The kit will report the pH level of your soil, which is a measure of the activity of hydrogen atoms in a solution of soil water. This information indicates the acidity or alkalinity of your soil, which in turn regulates how effectively your plants can utilize available nutrients (such as nitrogen, calcium, phosophorus, and potassium).
A pH kit should also provide guidelines for balancing soil with rock powders or sands if soil condition in not ideal. For example:
- If your soil is too acidic, you can add a form of lime, such as oyster shells
- If your soil is too alkaline you can add a form of sulfur, such as pine needles, composted leaves, or cocoa peet (made from cocoa shells)
If your soil is extremely acidic or overly alkaline, it will take quite a bit of patience with the balancing act (sometimes months to a couple of years)! Retesting at intervals is a great way to measure the progress.
Plants prefer varying levels of acidity and alkalinity, so it may be best to consider new plants with pH needs that compliment the pH of your soil.
- Visit the Colorado University Cooperative Extension page Acid-Loving Plants for a breakdown of houseplants, woody ornamentals, vegetable crops, and fruit crops.
- For plants preferring alkaline conditions, visit The Garden Helper’s site Recommended Flowers and Plants for Alkaline Soil.
Once you understand your soil composition and condition, you can readily identify the best organic compost for your garden. Organic compost is ideal because it increases the organic content and moisture-retention capacity of the soil while it improves the physical structure of the soil, allowing more air to get to plant roots. Place compost on top of the soil or gently till it down into the soil for best results. Other soil health boosters include: earthworm castings, compost teas, or organic fertilizers.