The Hamilton Spectator - - GO -

Your soil is alive and teem­ing with micro­organ­isms. Plants need these mi­crobes to break down nu­tri­ents.

Feed the soil, not the plants. Mi­crobes eat or­ganic ma­te­rial such as dead leaves, com­post, worm cast­ings and ma­nure. In turn, they process this food into wa­ter-sol­u­ble nu­tri­ents that plants ab­sorb through their roots.

Mi­crobes need to breathe. To op­er­ate ef­fi­ciently, mi­crobes re­quire tiny pock­ets of air in soil. If the ground is con­stantly sat­u­rated, they drown. Anaer­o­bic (bad) bac­te­ria, which can sur­vive without air, take over and pro­duce al­co­hol — and plant roots rot.

Soil has struc­ture; don’t rip it up. Re­peated till­ing and churn­ing collapses the soil struc­ture, con­tribut­ing to the for­ma­tion of hard­pan, an im­pen­e­tra­ble layer of clay. By treat­ing soil with ten­der­ness, air pock­ets are not dis­turbed. In­stead, layer or­ganic ma­te­rial on top; mi­crobes will come up to get it.

Soil has tex­ture. That tex­ture comes from the mix of gritty sand, smooth silt and sticky clay. Know­ing how much of each in­gre­di­ent is the key to un­der­stand­ing how that soil will per­form.

Test your soil be­fore adding amend­ments. Know your soil’s pH — its acid­ity or al­ka­lin­ity. In­ex­pen­sive pH test kits are avail­able at nurs­eries and home-im­prove­ment cen­tres. The lower the num­ber, the more acidic the soil; higher num­bers are more al­ka­line. Most plants pre­fer “neu­tral” soil — 6.5 to 7.0 on the pH scale. Acid-lov­ing plants such as camel­lias and aza­leas pre­fer a pH of 5.0 to 6.0. Never go to ex­tremes on the scale. Other ba­sic soil tests mea­sure macronu­tri­ents — ni­tro­gen, phos­phate and potas­sium — that are the pri­mary build­ing blocks for plant growth. More ex­ten­sive test­ing will mea­sure sec­ondary nu­tri­ents — cal­cium, mag­ne­sium and sul­phur — and mi­cronu­tri­ents in­clud­ing iron, cop­per, boron and zinc. These other nu­tri­ents act like vi­ta­mins for plants, pro­mot­ing health and strong growth, but too much can be fa­tal.

Build­ing good soil takes time. Don’t ex­pect overnight re­sults. When mak­ing ad­just­ments, take baby steps.

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