What makes a soil healthy?

Soil health can be one of the most confusing things for a gardener to tackle. Your garden seems to be growing flowers or vegetables all right, so it must be healthy, right?
Well, this is not always the case as some soils can sustain life and produce flowers or vegetables, but these may be not producing up to their full potential.
In my last column, you identified what soil type you have. Now this column will help you to determine your soil health.
In order for soil to be considered healthy, it must be fertile and have a good structure.
For a soil to be fertile, it must have nutrients readily available and a pH value at a recommended level for the plants that will reside in it.
What should be available are the essential nutrients: nitrogen (leaf growth), phosphorous (root growth), and potassium (overall health). As well, there also should be trace elements like calcium and magnesium.
The pH level of the soil refers to its acidity or alkalinity, and each plant has its own preferred value range.
Plants placed into fertile soil will grow up to be very strong and healthy specimens (that is, if other conditions like light levels and climate are favourable, as well).
The other determiner of a healthy soil is its texture (last week’s column covered the different types of soil texture). Soil having a loamy texture is the healthiest and it should be strived for if at all possible.
In general, a soil that retains nutrients, while allowing water and air to permeate it, will be beneficial for the life of your plants—regardless of what you plan to grow.
No matter what type of soil you have, the addition of organic matter will work wonders for its health. Organic matter is plant and animal residues in varying forms of decomposition.
It will replenish the nutrients in your soil and improve its texture.
You may have heard countless times about adding your kitchen organic waste leftovers and glass clippings to a compost heap. This is a great idea as compost is the best form of organic matter.
Compost in an advanced stage of decomposition (dark and without smell) is magic for your soil. It encourages microorganism activity, which is especially beneficial for clay soils, which have poor drainage.
Other forms of organic matter are animal manure and peat moss.
If your soil is lacking in nutrients and you don’t have access to a compost heap, you have a choice of using inorganic or organic fertilizers.
Inorganic fertilizers (inorganic salts, manufactured chemically) can be purchased at your local garden. They are applied in a dry form that is raked lightly at the base of a plant or scattered across the soil, or in a liquid form.
While inorganic fertilizers will work fine, they do have a number of disadvantages. For instance, they release their nutrients too quickly.
There also is some evidence to show that plants develop a resistance to inorganic fertilizer methods over time—requiring more and more to achieve the same effect.
Organic fertilizers are more in tune with nature because they are created from the remains or by-product of an organism. They act slower, but they “amend” the soil rather than the quick “feeding” it like inorganic fertilizers.
Nobody has “perfect” soil. It can change over the winter months or during the growing season. Some plants, like those which produce an abundance of flowers, often rob the soil of nutrients over the growing season.
Regular additions of organic matter can help to maintain that close to “perfect” soil throughout the growing season and over the winter months.
Just make sure you add your organic materials regularly and mix well into the soil to ensure distribution of the nutrients.

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