Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium (NPK) are what those numbers on a bag of fertilizer stand for. However, the key to growing healthy plants is not just about NPK. Sometimes there are certain conditions in the soil that can block nutrients from getting to your plants. More often than not people kill their plants with love. They water too much or they over feed them. Growing healthy plants requires a combination of things and it all starts with the soil. Since soil is what your plants grow in, it is the foundation of gardening. Without a strong foundation, you're asking for trouble. These tips below are some guidelines professional farmers use to help decide what is needed for their next growing season. These also help them figure out why they may be having some disease or pest problems on their farm this year, or can help anticipate what may be coming next year. These tips can be useful to home gardeners as well and are not cost prohibitive.
1. Is your Soil Acidic or Alkaline? Know the pH of your soil -
Know whether you have an acidic, basic (alkaline), or neutral soil. To do this, you want to check the soil pH. Most garden suppliers sell simple pH kits to test your soil. They have easy to follow instructions and cost as little as $10 dollars. Soil pH has a huge impact on the plants you choose to grow. Refer to a plant guide to check which plants will grow best in the type of soil you have. Generally, it is more acidic on the East Coast and more alkaline on the West Coast and more neutral in the middle of the country. Soil pH can be adjusted using amendments such as lime, acid, and gypsum, however it takes time.
2. How Much Organic Matter Is In The Soil? -
Get a measurement of the organic matter in your soil as part of a soil analysis. Contact your local agricultural extension for some help. They can walk you through the process and also run the test for you at a low cost. High organic matter will sustain lots of life and also help with drainage and drought tolerance. High organic matter, say 3 or 4%, is great for drought tolerance, supporting chemical reactions, and for supporting life of worms, beneficial insects, and microbes. High organic matter is also important in fighting off erosion.
3. How Moist Is Your Soil? Know when to water and when not to.-
More often than not, people tend to kill their plants with love. In other words, they over-water. Get a moisture meter, put in the soil and water accordingly. Also, know the moisture needs of your plants. Some plants love water and others don't. Moisture also helps materials break down further in the soil, helps microbes, worms and insects survive during hot summer months and also helps fight erosion.
4. Is Your Soil Compacted? Keep it aerobic-
Most of the life in the soil requires some amount of air. Dense soils low in organic matter tend to go anaerobic. Clay soil is an example. Most pathogenic, or disease-causing, microbes are anaerobic. When soils get compacted or saturated with moisture, there is less oxygen and the anaerobic bacteria start to proliferate. This is the reason people want to add more organic matter, practice minimum tillage, and not over-water or over fertilize.
5. Is Your Soil Rich In Beneficial Microorganisms? If not, you probably have disease problems-
Microbes help convert nutrients into (bio-available) forms that plants can use. Adding in strait ammonia or high amounts of ammonia will burn a plant. Certain microbes will convert that ammonia to ammonium and amino acids and vitamins, forms that a plant can use without being harmed. Microbes produce enzymes and hormones that are needed by the plants for it to grow. Loads of beneficial microbes will also able to attack pathogenic microbes and breakdown many of the toxic substances they produce. Microbes are great to apply directly to the soil and on the plant as part of a foliar spray.
6. What Kind of Water Are You Putting On Your Soil? You could be adding problems and not even know it-
Here we are concerned with the pH of the water, the salts, and which minerals and is in the water being used to water plants and soil. If you are on municipal water, you can request a copy of a water analysis since municipalities are required to conduct regular tests and report them to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If you are on a well, get an analysis done every few of years. A complete analysis costs between $45 and $65. Watch for cysts, bacterial contaminants as well as chemical contaminants. High pH water tends to have salts in it. Make sure to get a list of the minerals in the water. Watch mostly for salts as high salts can be toxic to many plants as well as affect nutrients. Once you know this, you can plan accordingly. It is also just good to know what the quality of the water you are drinking is as well.
7. What Kind Of Nutrients Are Already In Your Soil? Plan a nutrient plan based on the results.-
Get a soil analysis done. Take a several samples of your soil about 3 to 8 inches deep and send them to your local Agricultural Extension for an analysis. Be sure to remove the first 1-2 inches. You should get measurements of the following: Nitrogen (N), Potassium (K), Phosphorus (P), Sodium Absorption Rate (SAR), Zinc (Z), Magnesium (Mg), Manganese (Mn), Sodium (Na), Calcium (Ca), Sulfate, Electro Conductivity (EC), Organic Matter, Iron (Fe), Boron (B), and Copper (Cu). Use the results to calculate what is needed in your soil and follow up at the end of the season with another analysis to see what was used.
These tips should help dramatically improve your gardening experience. They will also help you figure out where you may be having some problems, where you don't and an idea why. It is not always as easy as getting some compost, digging a hole, dropping a plant and giving it some water. If you have some disease and/or pest problems, chances are one or more of the above items needs some attention. So, before you reach for some chemical solution to fix you plants, make sure you know that your plant has a healthy home with plenty of the right nutrients, moisture, pH, organic matter, microbes, and air. Over time you will have less and less problems and more and more success.
Eric Lancaster is Executive Vice President of TeraGanix, Inc., the exclusive North America distributor of Effective Microorganisms® and EM® Bokashi products. He has been using the Effective Microorganisms® at home and commercially for 14 years. You can learn more about Effective Microorganisms® at http://www.TeraGanix.com.
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