Whether you like it or not, planning what you’re planting in the season ahead is less important than figuring out what you’ll be planting it in. Soil matters, and can spell the difference between healthy, beautiful plants that resist the malevolent forces of Mother Nature, or weak, pest-infested plants that you have to stop yourself from ripping out every time you see them.
If you accept the idea that we are what we eat – whether human or animal – it should be obvious that our plants live by a similar mantra. Feed them the equivalent of pizza and Costco cake muffins, and you won’t be harvesting fruits and vegetables rich in vitamins and minerals, you’ll be wondering why your tomatoes are stunted for the fifth year in a row.
Again, soil matters.
And new gardeners tend to overlook this crucial point in the quest to get something in the ground and growing. They go outside, look at their soil, and if it’s not forcing them to do something heroic, they call it good and stick in a tomato – throwing a handful of miscellaneous fertilizer into the hole first.
I understand the temptation. It’s very easy to get overwhelmed by the minutiae of soil health and avoid the issue all together. But one can only avoid something this critical for so long – particularly if growing vegetables. Who wants to put a huge amount of effort into weeding and watering a tomato plant only to watch it whimper and wane away?
But there are three major things at play here – not just the actual fertility of the soil as quantified by the holy trinity of Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (and various other micronutrients that never get top billing), but the composition of the soil, and its pH – the plant’s ‘soil environment’ if you will.
The successful gardener will be aware of all three. The frustrated gardener will get overwhelmed by the science and shut down.
How about we think of our plant’s environment the same way we’d think of our own? We’re not only affected by the nutrients we eat, but how deeply we can (and let ourselves) put down our roots – not to mention what we put them down into.
Let’s say George eats nothing but nutrient-poor foods every day and lives in a high-stress working environment. He has little time for rest and never delves too deeply in the things that make life worth living – like friends, family and recreational activities. He has a nice house and yard, but never sees it because he works too many hours every day of the week.
Yet every night he takes a high dose vitamin of all the nutrients he’s been told he needs, and follows it up with the medications he’s been given to control the symptoms of various conditions he’s developed over the years. Once in a while he follows a fad diet – sure that it is the answer to low energy and mild depression – but goes back to his lifestyle in the end.
Who amongst us would think that lifestyle was healthy?
George’s roots aren’t deep. He’s never cultivated more than an inch below the surface. No amount of fad diets or multi-vitamins will compensate for the shallowness of that existence, and it slowly will show in George’s demeanor and overall health.
He needs more. He needs a rich soil, but even if he cultivates one, he’s going to need to make major changes in lifestyle to actually benefit from it.
If you accept the idea that we are what we eat – whether human or animal – it should be obvious that our plants live by a similar mantra.
Our plants need more too. You can throw handfuls of fertilizer at a tomato plant, but if your soil is too alkaline, it won’t be able to put those nutrients and minerals to good use. You can water your tomatoes every day, but if your soil is too sandy and lacks organic matter, it won’t be able to retain moisture around its roots. You can create a soil that appears to be deep, dark and rich, and yet possesses almost zero fertility.
Nutrients, Soil Composition and pH for our plants – Nutrients, Environment and Time for us.
Our plants need a complete picture to be healthy, just as we do. An abundance of one of those factors is not going to cut it.
If you’ve been struggling with your vegetables, or are just starting out, why not experiment this year in a small part of your garden with healthier soil? Give it a deep application of organic matter such as compost, humus, leaf mold, or rotted manure early in the season.
When it’s time to plant, test the soil either through your state extension office or with a small kit you can pick up at the hardware store. If that finds your soil lacking in nutrients, it’s time to amend further with an organic fertilizer. (I love the Espoma line of products for their versatile, gentle formulas and ease of application).
Test your pH too. Chances are, it’s neutral, but if it’s not on the neutral to acid side, your plant may be struggling to take up all those lovely nutrients. This too can be cured with a soil acidifier according to instructions, and is best worked on over time.
Once you’ve got a handle on these three things, there’s even more to explore in the world of soil health, but my guess is, most people will see a huge difference by applying themselves here first. It’s usually the simple things that make the most difference – both to ourselves and our plants.