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Soil and the Role it Plays in the Health of Your Plants

Author Robert Pavlis

What is wrong with my plant? In today's post from the book Soil Science for Gardeners: Working with Soil to Build Soil Health , author Robert Pavlis outlines four potential answers to this common question, with special emphasis on the health of your soil.

Excerpt from Introduction

The most common question gardeners ask is What is wrong with my plant?

If a plant is not growing well, there are four potential problem areas. Too little or too much light. That is an easy fix, and new gardeners soon learn to plant in the right light conditions. Watering is the next thing to consider. New gardeners struggle with knowing the correct amount of water to give a plant, but they soon learn that you water when the soil starts to dry out and that you water deep and less frequently.

Pest and disease problems are not simple to diagnose, but you can see most pests, or at least you can see their effect on the plant. Even diseases show symptoms that help you solve the problem. Prevention may not be as easy, but gardeners do learn about common pests and diseases over time.

The fourth area to consider is the soil, and even for experienced gardeners, this remains a mystery. You probably have a vague understanding about nutrients, and you have almost certainly fertilized plants before. But for most gardeners, the stuff that happens underground is a complete unknown.

Photo by Neslihan Gunaydin on Unsplash

Go out into your garden and have a close look at it. What do you see? The plants are obvious, especially if they are blooming, but look past the plants at the soil underneath them. You probably don’t see anything except soil. You might see some mulch, or a few small stones, but except for the plant, it all looks lifeless.

Pick up a pinch of soil and hold it in the palm of your hand. You can’t see them, but you are looking at billions of living organisms representing many thousands of different species. All those lifeforms are trying to eke out a living. They are growing, breathing, reproducing, and the larger ones are eating smaller ones, which leads to a lot of excrement that feeds the plants.

Some are trying to attack your plants, while others are forming partnerships with them and defending them from pest organisms. Some are actually roaming the soil, collecting nutrients and delivering them back to plant roots. There are organisms in soil that you can’t see, which are spoon-feeding your plants.

Photo by Kyle Ellefson on Unsplash

One of the reasons soil is so mysterious to gardeners is that our eyes can’t see any of this. The number of organisms is so vast and the microbe societies are so complex, we can’t get our head around it all. One of the goals of this book is to simplify the soil story and present it in such a way that you truly understand what is going on.

A few years ago, I was designing an introductory gardening course for the general public. I had a look at some large gardening books to get an idea of the main topics that should be covered. One book, of 640 pages, had 4 pages dedicated to soil. Another with over 700 pages did not have a single page on the topic. I decided to start the program by discussing soil and dedicated one-sixth of the course to it. After 45 years of gardening experience, I realize that growing plants is very easy if you understand the soil below them. It anchors them; it feeds them; and it provides the air and water they need to survive. If you create healthy soil, you can grow anything that is suitable for your climate.

New gardeners, and even more experienced ones, tend to learn about gardening by memorizing rules. When do you transplant a peony? Should you cut back an iris? When is the best time to prune a lilac? These are all rules, and once you learn them, they are easy to follow. Move peonies in fall; cut back German bearded iris in mid to late summer; and prune lilacs after flowering. But here are thousands of different kinds of plants. You will never learn and remember all the rules for all these plants.

A much better approach is to learn the underlying science. Learn how plants grow and the role soil plays. Once you understand that, you can skip learning the rules because you don’t need them, and you will be able to grow just about anything. And that is the second goal of this book: I want you to understand what is really going on in soil and how it affects plants. This book paints a simple, clear picture of the natural processes below your feet.

Once you have a really good understanding of the basics, you will be able to evaluate any gardening procedure and determine if it makes sense. For example, once you understand aggregation, you can decide for yourself if tilling is a good practice and if and when it should be used.

More importantly, you will be able to evaluate many of the fad techniques and products that are invented every year. Many of these are simply a waste of time and do not improve soil health or plant growth. You will be a more informed consumer.

Photo by Nikola Jovanovic on Unsplash

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