3 | It’s all about the soil

2 Sep 2020
by Francois

Before you can put any seeds or plants in the ground, we have to make sure that your soil is geared for optimal plant growth.

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The Basics Of Soil

Apart from sunlight, which is used by the leaves for photosynthesis, all plants require three components from the soil to maintain a healthy, functioning root system, namely water, air and nutrients. How readily plants receive these three components, is what separates good soil from poor soil. This is also where organisms come into play and where it gets really interesting. You can learn a lot from the health of your soil by observing it. Below are a couple of tests you can do immediately to get a glimpse of the various aspects of your soil:

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Structure

Test
  • Dig a hole to a depth of 20-30cm. At that depth remove a large handful of soil on the side of the hole. Holding the soil in your hand, rub some of it between your fingers, noting the nature and granularity of the soil. Now gently compress it in your hand and open it again. Does it hold its shape?
Ideal Outcome
  • The soil should consist of a variety of shapes and sizes of particles that will hold its shape after compressing it. If you struggled to break apart any clumps, the soil is too hard.

Compaction

Test
  • Take a thin metal post or thick piece of wire and insert it into the soil until the resistance bends the wire or you feel that it doesn’t go in any further. Note the point where it enters the soil so that you can measure the depth after taking it out again. Do this test in a couple of different locations to get an average.
Ideal Outcome
  • You want around 30cm of easily penetrable soil to allow roots to grow freely and water and other organisms to circulate in the soil.

Workability

Test
  • Using a rake or similar implement, try to move or dig the top layer of your soil. Is it easily moved around or does it produce round or plate-like clumps of soil?
Ideal Outcome
  • You want an easily workable soil, that is free of large clumps so that water can reach down into the soil at root level.

Living Organisms

Test
  • Dig another hole, this time to a depth of 15-20cm. Upon removing the soil, observe the soil at the bottom of the hole closely for a couple of minutes. Take note of the number of different organisms that you see moving around inside.
Ideal Outcome
  • You want a large variety of organisms (preferably 10) in your soil. Each of these organisms, together with a diverse array of bacteria and fungi,  play an important part in achieving good soil quality and their existence ensures that unwelcome organisms and diseases are kept at bay.

Existing Roots

Test
  • Dig a bit around existing plants to expose their roots. If you can, pull up a part of the plant to view its root system. What do the roots look like?
Ideal Outcome
  • Roots should ideally be white and there should be many fine, white strands. This is generally an indication of good soil quality – adequate air, biological activity, soil structure and water drainage.

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The more ideal outcomes you have after doing these tests, the better. However, don’t despair if your soil is less than ideal – there are easy ways to improve it, which we will cover in the Growing section of our Journal.

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