One of the major tenants of garden lore that is mentioned, but rarely talked about in any detail, is the need to pay attention to garden soil structure. Too often a beginning gardener becomes disappointed with their early efforts, not because of anything they did, but rather due to shortcomings in the soil they had planted their crops in.
Plants require certain types of soil to grow in if they are to prosper. Plain dirt dug up in the back yard may or may not cover all the bases, so let’s take a look at some of the key characteristics to look for in a good as opposed a poor soil. Let’s start by taking a look at what makes a soil suitable for growing crops. Soil that is of the right composition or mix is termed a soil that has good tilth. Let’s explore some characteristics of tilth.
Basic Soil Composition
In the most general of terms, a soil can be broken down into two components: solids and spaces. The solids would be composed of things like minerals, sand and organics while the spaces would contain air and water. Now, about ninety percent of the solids could be further broken down into three classes or types; sand, silt and or clay (which are really just rocky minerals divided up according to their size). The remaining ten percent (10%) is composed of organic material and it is this material that is vitally important to the future health of your plants. It’s also the one thing about soil that you can easily do something about! Included in the organic part are literally billions of soil microbes that directly participate in the breakdown or decomposition of organics and which then often aid in the transport of nutrients to the plant roots. We call decomposed organic material ‘humus’ and it is the health of the tiny microbes that live in close association with humus that make all the difference. Good microbial populations equal healthy plants. The presence of humus in a soil is what gives it that great smell when you hold a handful up to your nose. Someone once said, the nose knows and once you sense the smell of a good soil, you’ll never forget it!
Air spaces constitute or make up about 50% of the volume of a healthy soil so they are very
important also. In these spaces, you will find both air and water. Yes, roots require air to breath and if the spaces become compacted such as is seen from over tillage, you will get terrible results. The plants will die for lack of air and water. The moral of this story is that once you get your soil in good condition, please don’t ever walk on it or do anything to compact it!
A Closer Look
Now that we see that soil is both spaces and solids, lets take a little closer look at how the solid part can be put together. Remember when I used the word tilth? Well, good tilth depends on the overall mix of soil texture, structure (or aggregation), density, drainage and water holding ability. This is influenced greatly by the exact proportion of clay, sand and silt that make it up. To the right is a chart of how different soils are made from varying the composition of these three basic ingredients. When you first look at it, you might be a little confused. So, what’s the best soil? Well, the answer is not to think so much as what is best as it is to think in terms of avoiding any extremes. So, if your soil is somewhere in the middle of the chart that’s good. If it’s tending towards one of the corners, then you might want to consider some soil management techniques that could apply depending on your circumstance. If you have small raised beds like I do, then you can always buy bags of different kinds of soil to alter the structure. If, on the other hand, you have a large backyard garden, this might not be a viable alternative. The good news is that almost any soil can be improved by the addition of compost. That will be subject of a future blog.
Update: I reworked this post a bit more in October 2011 and there still exists areas that need to be redone. Hopefully, my readers get the point that a good growing soil is a biologically active (alive) soil and that any over application of anything not ‘natural’ may disturb the natural order that exists to help feed and nurture any crops that grow in it.