Last month in my blog My Soil Is Crap Part I, I tried to dispel the myth that you can diagnose soil problems by just looking at your soil. While the color of a soil does impart some diagnostic qualities, most soils are not easily analyzed without a soils test. A complete soils test will give a textural analysis including useful information about water holding capacity and a variety of chemical analyses. Soil reaction or pH is an essential component of any soil test (and is often unreliable in home soil test kits). Soil reaction affects the availability of plant required mineral salts. Most soil tests give a measure of the salinity sometimes call TDS, or total dissolved salts (solids). Finally specific mineral content of soil is usually analyzed – in particular macronutrients are usually quantified. With these data a great deal can be predicted about the “grow-ability” of your soil. Soil tests can also help guide attempts to modify soils. The biology of soils is not easily or routinely analyzed through soils tests.
Soil can be “harmed” in several ways–making it less able to grow plants. Or another way to look at this is that soil can be enhanced in several ways to grow plants better. First let’s examine the harm. Soil can be physically harmed by tilling with a rototiller. Tillage destroys structure and the natural clods and peds that form over time because of a soil’s innate qualities. Structured soils support plants and help prevent disease. Tilled soils will in time resume their native structure, but the amount of time required is quite variable depending on soil type. Soil structure can also be squished– this is compaction. Compacted soils hold less water, take water in slowly (so more runoff) and have less air space for gas exchange. In severely compacted soils roots have difficulty penetrating so plants don’t grow well or at all in compacted soil zones. Compacted soils are common in parks, school yards and public areas. Finally soils can be damaged chemically and biologically. Excessive salts from fertilizers applied in excess can compromise roots causing fertilizer burn. Soil residual herbicides from overapplication can have toxic effects on plants growing there or nearby. Herbicides and salts often accumulate along roadsides where they are used to melt snow and ice or control weeds.
Climate affects on soil
Climate can modify soils making them less than optimal for growing plants. In areas of high rainfall, soils may become deficient in certain ions such as metals, which tend to leach from soil, leading to increased acidity because these ions help maintain pH neutrality. In areas where precipitation is less than evaporation, salts tend to accumulate in soil and soil reaction rises above neutral. The ideal soil pH for most plants is 6.8. At this pH, most plant-required minerals are available for absorption by roots. As pH moves above 8 or below 5, soils are said to be alkaline or acid and various minerals are less available to plants. Soil reactions between pH 6.8 and 7.2 usually pose few problems for most plants. Some plants that are “acid loving” like blueberries are adapted to grow in low pH soils where nutrients are supplied by decaying organic matter. For these kinds of plants, some soil modification may be necessary (unless you live in a climate where such plants are natives). Testing your soil pH is very important to understand nutrient availability in general.
Amending vs Mulching
Arid soils are usually low in organic matter. In climates with more rainfall where forests or grasslands naturally occur, soils have higher organic matter content. Typically organic matter ranges between 1 and 5% of total soil solids. Organic matter supplies carbon for soil microbes and is necessary to promote soil structure. Organic matter can hold and release positively charged (cations) soil mineral nutrients used by plants. Organic soils have the highest cation exchange capacity (CEC), a measure of soil fertility. Soil organic matter tends to bring soil pH back toward neutral. Very acid or alkaline soils can be modified by adding organic matter. Finally, organic matter may contain nutrients that help plants grow. Sometimes amending with a nutrient-rich compost will give annual plants quite a boost (see Calendula images below) While arborist chip mulches yield nutrients to soils slowly over years, composts provide nutrients immediately, and they can be easily over-applied depending on what is required for a given soil to grow the intended plants. If you are going to amend a soil, be sure that the amendment has enough nitrogen in it. Well-formed composts, high in plant required mineral nutrients but not overly salty, make excellent amendments.
Perennials, including all woody plants, generally do not benefit from amending because they rapidly grow out of the amended zone in the planting hole. Unless you amend an entire site, not much will happen. Also, once perennials are set in the ground you can’t amend again. Mulches of arborist chips, fresh or aged, are best for perennial plantings. Mulches can be replenished as needed without disturbing root systems. Raised beds are often amended heavily, and rightly so, since these planting situations amount to large containers that need a more porous “soil”. Since raised bed plantings are usually annuals, amendment can be added again as needed between crops. Composts make suitable amendments. Compost qualities, especially salinity, should be carefully measured or monitored before using, or through a bio-assay as detailed in my last blog.
Adding minerals and fertilizers
Gardeners generally buy and add fertilizers without concern to harming their plants. This is a big NO. Excess levels of phosphate can interfere with uptake of other needed minerals. Applying fertilizer to landscapes above what is needed can pollute creeks and other bodies of water. It is important to let your soil test guide fertilizer applications. Usually there are enough fertilizer elements in most soils that landscapes can remain unfertilized, especially if leaf litter and mulches are utilized. If plants show deficiency symptoms be sure to check your soil reaction to make sure that the pH is in a growing range for the plants you are cultivating. If the pH is right but you still have symptoms, then consideration of fertilizers based on soils tests is appropriate.
There is some confusion about use of minerals as amendments. Lime is used to raise pH and often brings soils back into production in high rainfall areas where soils are too acid. Gypsum does not alter pH of soils but is often called things like “clay buster” or “compaction reliever” This is because salt affected clay soils have too much sodium which is replaced by calcium when gypsum is applied to a sodic soil relieving some of the particle dispersion. Most gardeners do not have sodic soils (which are greasy and poorly productive) but just plain old clay or clay loams. Gypsum supplies sulfate as an anion and calcium as a cation and if sulfur or calcium are deficient gypsum can be helpful. Gypsum is not needed in most gardens. Gypsum does have a fungicidal effect against root rot organisms (Phytophthora) and can be added to reduce root rot hazard. Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) are often recommended for rose culture, but there is no research showing any benefit from their application to roses. In our trials in California, application of Epsom salts had no effect on rose bloom quality or quantity. Some soils low in magnesium could benefit from magnesium sulfate but these are fairly rare.
Some Soil changes are not long lasting
The textural nature of soil (i.e., relative amounts of sand, silt and clay) does not change over time. While we can add organic matter, it breaks down and disappears rapidly. Water quality, evaporation, and rainfall drive soil change. These factors tend to bring soil back to its “native” conditions. Irrigated soils may be affected by the quality of the irrigation water. So if you are trying to grow blueberries in Las Vegas, this will be a challenge that likely can’t be met by soil modifications. Growing plants adapted to the type of soil and climate you have is best. Growing exotics that require a different soil formation process will always be an uphill battle better suited to container culture.
Blakey, D. 2021. Adjusting soil pH in California Gardens. UCANR publication 8710. https://doi.org/10.3733/ucanr.8710
Downer. A.J. and B.A. Faber. 2021. Organic Amendments for Landscape Soils. UCANR publication #8711.
Downer, A.J., and B.A. Faber. 2019. Mulches for Landscapes UCANR publication #8672.
Faber, B.A., A.J. Downer, D. Holstege, and M.J. Mochizuki. 2007. Accuracy varies for commercially-available soil test kits analyzing nitrate nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and pH. HortTechnology: 17:358-362.
Messenger, B.J., Menge, J.A., and E. Pond,. 2007. Effects of gypsum on zoospores and sporangia of Phytophthora cinnamomi in field soil. Plant Disease 84(6): 617-621