Soil and water

Struggling with poor returns? Check your soil

The pH of your soil is one of the most important factors in determining its fertility. [Phares Mutembei, Standard]

A good harvest starts with the soil. However, farmers are often unaware of the importance of proper soil preparation on overall crop performance.

No crop will grow well without healthy, fertile soil. It’s like expecting a baby to grow into a healthy adult without food or water. Good soil not only stabilizes plants and influences the quality of root anchorage, but also provides essential nutrients, water and air that plants need. If you start with poor soil, your crops will struggle to reach their full potential. To achieve this, you need to understand the chemistry and composition of your soil and create the right environment for your crops to thrive. Good soil takes time to achieve, it’s a process, but once you master the basics it gets easier.

Soil history

The history of your farm and how the soil was used are important when deciding how to improve the soil. Understand the history of your farm, identify the type of plants that were grown, the type of fertilizer or manure that was applied, and which crops performed well or poorly. These indicators will reveal the potential limits of your soil.

Understanding Soil Type

The soils are composed of mineral particles mainly clay, sand and silt. Often they will contain higher amounts of one type of particle than the others. This doesn’t make them bad growing media, but it will affect their density, drainage rate, and ability to hold nutrients. Clay soils have tiny, dense particles that hold large stores of moisture and nutrients. However, clay soil also drains slowly and can become hard and compact when dry. Sandy soils are the opposite, with large particles that water passes through easily with important nutrients. Silts have fine particles that pack together tightly, inhibiting drainage and air circulation. Loam is the ideal soil for most plants; it contains a balance of the three mineral particles and is rich in humus. Adding organic matter is the best way to make your soil more loamy and improve its structure.

Test the pH of your soil
The pH of your soil is one of the most important factors in determining its fertility. If your soil is too alkaline (with a pH above 7.5) or too acidic (with a pH below 5.5), it can make a big difference in nutrient availability for your plants. Although most plants tolerate a wide range of pH levels, they prefer slightly acidic soils (with a pH of 6-7) because important nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium and magnesium readily dissolve in this environment. In soils that are too acidic or alkaline, your plants may get too much of some nutrients and not enough of others.

To increase soil pH, add limestone. Limestone should be applied at least two to three months before planting to give it time to work. Wood ash can also raise soil pH, but care must be taken when using it. Applying too much wood ash can cause high pH readings and absorb nutrients from your soil. If you use wood ash every year, monitor your soil’s pH closely and stop using it when the appropriate reading is reached. Alkaline soil, on the other hand, needs to be made more acidic. This can be done with the addition of sulfur, sawdust, conifer needles, sawdust or oak leaves.

Cover crops

Cover crops are temporary plantings, usually sown in the fall, that help protect the soil from wind and erosion and add valuable organic matter. They also establish a dense root structure which can have a positive effect on soil texture. Cover crops also suppress weeds, deter insects and disease, and help fix nitrogen. When the crops are returned to the soil, they become green manures. Rye and alfalfa are common cover crops. Cover crops are planted at the end of the growing season or during part of the growing season itself.

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