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Feed the Soil…

… Not the Plant. But isn’t it the plant that needs the nutrition; not the soil? The answer to this question lies in the not-so-complicated relationship between soil and plants.

First of all, many gardeners see themselves as responsible for feeding their plants. And this is partially true. But plants are very capable of providing for their own needs by working closely with organisms in the soil. Unless there is knowledge of a nutrient deficiency or pH imbalance, there is very little the gardener needs to do to keep their plants well-fed.

Plants have developed a mutually beneficial relationship with bacteria and fungi. They need soil organisms which make macro- and micro-nutrients – such as nitrogen, potassium, and magnesium – available to them. Bacteria and fungi eat carbon and need plants to make it available through the sugars produced from their roots.

As long as everything stays in balance, nature is leading the show!

Plant Nutrients

Of the 17 essential nutrients required by plants, 3 come from the air and 14 come from the soil. carbon (C), hydrogen (H), and oxygen (O), found in air, account for over 90% of a plant’s weight. The remaining nutrients, of which nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K) are macro-nutrients and are needed the most. Micro-nutrients such as boron, magnesium, copper, and iron are needed in much smaller amounts.

Several factors affect a plant’s ability to utilize these nutrients.

  • The type of soil determines the amount of nutrients that it will retain. Higher amounts of clay and organic matter enable a greater level of nutrient retention.
  • The soil pH determines how tightly the nutrients are bound to the soil particles. If the pH is too high or too low, many nutrients become unavailable to the plant.
  • The amount of water in the soil. Too much rain in the soil leaches nutrients. If there is not enough water, the nutrients cannot dissolve and move into the plant.
  • Poor growing conditions such as temperature extremes, not enough or too much sunlight, and compacted soil limit a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients.

Nitrogen is behind almost every plant process, including the production of chlorophyll from sunlight. A nitrogen deficiency may appear as a yellowing of leaves which, due to this deficiency, cannot produce enough chlorophyll. Nitrogen also promotes healthy leaf growth and is needed in greater amounts for leafy vegetable crops. Nitrogen is water soluble and, therefore, does not remain in the soil very long.

Maintain The Balance

If growing conditions are favorable and the soil is left undisturbed, a balance of plants and soil organisms is naturally maintained, enabling nutrients to be available to the plant. If problems are evident or if you are creating a new garden bed, it is a good idea to have the soil tested. Testing will identify any nutrient deficiencies and the soil’s pH. This information will, then, enable the gardener to better understand what actions, if needed, are required.

The application of organic matter, however, is a practice which should be regularly followed. Organic matter is broken down by the soil food web and requires consistent replenishment.

In addition to adding organic matter, the following practices support the balance: