A GROWING CONCERN: From the ground up, soil critical for garden’s foundation

HERE WE ARE, already two days into April, the month that really kicks up the gardening work.

With that said, I realize it has been quite some time (years!) since I explained the critical nature of your soil.

So today, we are going to concentrate on soil texture, fertility and structure.

It is no fooling (pardon the late April Fools’ Day pun) that everything you do in your yard bears an exact relationship with your soil and its quality.

Nothing you can do will save you if your soil is not correct for the situation.

The garden primarily begins and ends with your soil’s structure and fertility. All else are minor tricks to increase yield.

All soils are composed of several different components. Organic matter, minerals and other solids form the basis of soil. The area between the particles in filled with water and air.

The relationship and the amount of these elements vary greatly, and with knowledge, we try to achieve a soil that doesn’t compact, holds water but drains, has good organics and consists of numerous particle sizes.

The ability of your soil to take up water, its tilth, its porosity and even the availability of nutrients are directly affected by particle size.

Our priority is to improve soil texture, which is directly related to the particle sizes in the soil. In fact, that’s how soils are grouped.

Sandy soils are particles 1/50 to 1/500 of an inch; silty soils have particles 1/500 to 1/1,000 of an inch.

Sand and silt particles are chemically stable; they retain the same composition as their parent material.

Clay particles and humus (organic matter) serve as storehouses for nutrients and, at their ion level, are very active, constantly giving up and taking on ions of other soil elements.

It is a necessity to have all textures in soils.

Loam is 10 percent clay, 50 percent silt and 40 percent sand. Soil structure is derived by how the individual particles group into larger clusters.

The most important clusters are granules, which are loose and do not swell greatly when wet. If the clusters are very porous, they are called crumbs.

Organic matter is found to form crumbs and thus improve significantly soil’s ability to hold water and nutrients. Good granulation is vital in our heavy soils of the Peninsula for healthy plants.

Sandy (rocky) soils have little if any granulations because of the coarseness and oneness of their particle size.

Adding in copious amounts of organic matter — peat moss is the miracle drug of gardening and now is the perfect time — is the best method of improving this type of soil’s fertility.

Porosity is the next biggie in soils. Pore space is directly related to texture and structure.

Pore space is important to the plant for three reasons: area available for roots to grow into, ability for soil to hold air and ability of soils to hold and allow water to flow through and into the plant.

Good soils have 49 percent to 60 percent of their area consisting of pore space.

Increased pore space is best achieved by having numerous particles in the soil. The more additives, the merrier: sand, bark, leaf mold, perlite, compost, vermiculite, peat moss, manure, black dirt and on and on.

Of course, as with all soil relationships, the proper balance must be maintained.

Too much pore space evaporates water before the plant can use it, and too little pore space slows water, which in turn slows the release of nutrients and hinders plant growth.

All soil water occurs in three forms: hygroscopic, gravitational and capillary.

Gravitational water is that which drains out of the soil’s pore space naturally because of the Earth’s gravitational pull. If drainage is poor, this is the water that kills the plant.

Hygroscopic water is chemically bound in the soil elements. It is part of the molecular structure and is thus unavailable to the plants.

It is capillary water that we care so much about in good soils and which plants rely on largely for moisture needs.

Organic matter and good structure do more than anything in adding capillary water to your soils.

Now to the work.

Before you get going on all your planting, prepare your soils. Go around your planting area and assess the situation.

I promise you that peat moss (organic matter) and other additives tilled into the needed spots will increase the quality of your plants like you have never seen.

These next weeks, I would start to condition the soil in flower beds with bags and bags of perlite, sand, peat moss and compost manure.

It is laborious work that must never be overlooked, so please prepare your soil.


Andrew May is an ornamental horticulturist who dreams of having Clallam and Jefferson counties nationally recognized as “Flower Peninsula USA.” Send him questions c/o Peninsula Daily News, P.O. Box 1330, Port Angeles, WA 98362, or email [email protected] (subject line: Andrew May).

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