Soil consists of 50 percent mineral solids (clay, silt and sand) and 50 percent water, air and organic matter. A good mixture of clay, silt and sand provides a well-structured soil. Clay soil is a dense soil; although quite fertile, it drains poorly and can turn to near concrete when dry.
Spring is here and we'd love to start our planting. But in some areas of Canada we know that it is still too early and that we may even get that last brief snowfall. There is, however, something you can get started on: getting your soil ready.
Soil consists of 50 percent mineral solids (clay, silt and sand) and 50 percent water, air and organic matter. A good mixture of clay, silt and sand provides a well-structured soil. Clay soil is a dense soil; although quite fertile, it drains poorly and can turn to near concrete when dry. Sandy soil is lower in fertility and drains too quickly, leeching nutrients and drying out roots. Silty soil is more porous than clay and less porous than sand. It is very fine and smooth, so washes away easily.
You can determine the structure of your soil with a simple test. Dig up about 250 mL (one cup) of soil and place it in a one litre (one quart) jar with a lid. Fill two-thirds of the jar with water and add five mL (one teaspoon) of liquid dish soap. Seal it and shake thoroughly. Set it aside and do not disturb it for several days. When the soil settles, the different soil types will separate into distinct layers. The sand will be at the bottom, the clay at the top and the silt in between. You can look at the relative ratio of each layer and identify what kind of soil you have. All these types of soils can be amended to provide a healthy environment for your plants.
The best way to improve your soil is with organic matter. Although adding sand to a clay-laden soil, for instance, will help the structure, incorporating organic matter is better as it helps improve not only the texture but also the biological activity of the soil. Worms and bacteria in the soil eat the organic matter and help decompose it, providing a fertile and healthy loam. Peat moss is effective as a soil amendment. It loosens clay soil, allowing good drainage and air circulation.
Added to sandy soil, it acts as a sponge, holding the water and nutrients that plants require. Other organic matter that can be used to improve soil is manure, shredded leaves, leaf mold, grass clippings, sawdust and compost. (These must be added in layers or thoroughly mixed in.)
Natural fertilizers can also be added to the soil now. Organic fertilizers will not burn plants and continue supplying nutrients for a long time. Over time, they also improve soil texture by adding organic matter. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, natural fertilizers feed the soil, not merely the plants.
The principal nutrients that plants require for healthy growth are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). On fertilizer packages you will notice a series of numbers such as 5-3-3. These are the NPK values, respectively.
Sources of nitrogen are fish meal or emulsion, alfalfa meal, feather meal, blood meal, manure, grass clippings and hair! Hair is a very concentrated source of nitrogen. Next time you clip your tresses, save them for the garden. As a plus, hair creates a barrier, helping to deter such pests as slugs. Lightning provides nitrogen as well. You may notice a greener lawn after a thunderstorm. Phosphorus sources include bone meal and rock phosphate. Potassium can be found in kelp meal, greens, wood ashes and tansy. Wood ashes will make your soil more alkaline, so add it accordingly. Tansy leaves can be steeped to make a wonderful potassium tea for your plants.
The most important thing you can do to improve your soil is to increase its organic matter. So this spring, set forth to bring your soil alive by feeding it organically. Your plants will continue to reward you with a wonderful display.