What is soil?
“This is where food begins”.
The soil is that layer of the earth in which plants grow. The quality of the soil plays a very vital role in the growth of the plant. After all, every plant thrives or dies due to the nourishment it receives from the soil. The soil forms the basis of all human, and in fact any kind of life. The quality of our living and our health, whether it is healthy or unhealthy, depends a lot on the condition of the soil. This is because, directly or indirectly, everything we eat comes from the soil.
Like all natural / organic farmers, I have a particularly close relationship with my soil. I value and more importantly, respect my soil. I try to be as aware as I can of the living ecosystem of organisms, minerals and organic matter present in my soil.
Good quality soil is essential to growing healthy and delicious fruits and vegetables.
Every farmer should understand the complexities of the soil’s ecosystem, in order to develop and maintain healthy soil. Understanding your soil will help you create optimal conditions for soil growth and consequently for plant growth.
The soil has its own world of microorganisms, worms, minerals and organic matter. These organisms interact with each other in the presence of water, and in turn, they generate all the nutrients that the plant needs in order to survive.
Anyone who has ever engaged himself in farming or gardening, recognises that the quality of soil can change the outcome of the harvest.
Understanding your soil type
(If your garden is blessed with the perfect soil than you are really lucky.)
But that may not be the case with many. It is important to know your soil type as it is the basis on which you can choose the plants that will naturally grow there.
There are 4 main soil types
1) Sandy Soil
2) Clayey Soil
3) Silty Soil
4) Loamy Soil
1) SANDY SOIL
It is known as ‘light’ soil. It feels dry and gritty to touch. The particles have huge spaces between them and are hence airy. Sandy soil is loose and easy to work with. However, due to its airy nature, it cannot hold on to water, causing the soil to dry up quickly. This soil is found to be low in nutrients and is generally more acidic in nature than other more fertile soil types such as loamy or clay.
How to improve the condition of Sandy soil.
a) Mulch around the plants, using leaves and other organic waste from your garden like hay, straw, barks etc. The mulch will help retain the moisture in the soil and eventually assist in keeping the soil humid and cool.
b) Add 2-3 inches of organic matter to the soil annually.
c) Work on the soil regularly with cow manure as well as urine, this will eventually condition the soil with a natural growth of microorganisms and earthworms. This will slowly improve the overall condition of the soil.
2) CLAYEY SOIL
Clayey soil is generally known as a “heavy soil”. The particles comprising the soil are very small and are tightly packed. They have a good water retaining capacity.
The drawback of this soil is that it is very hard to work with. The particles are so tightly packed that they can clog together, hardly leaving any space for air. In summer, the top few inches of this soil can dry out completely, making the surface very hard. This soil is, however, prone to be very rich in nutrients and minerals. The soil has a good water retaining capacity and can prove to be very productive once you improve the texture of the soil.
How to improve the conditions of Clayey soil
a) Work on the soil annually using 2-3 inches of organic matter.
b) Mulch with a light covering. Make sure it is a weed-free straw which will help in retaining moisture, especially in the summer.
c) Avoid tilling, especially when the soil is wet. This will compact the soil.
d) Use permanent raised beds made from organic matter.
3) SILTY SOIL
This kind of soil has much smaller particles than sandy soil and is very smooth in texture. It is generally the result of weathered rock and is irregular in shape. When moistened, the particles are soapy and sticky. Due to less pore space between them, they retain water, resulting in poor drainage. There can be major water logging in silty soil during the monsoon months. However, the soil also retains nutrients and is very fertile compared to sandy or clayey soils.
How to improve the condition of Silty soil
a) Work with at least 2-3 inches of organic matter on the soil.
b) The soil has a tendency to be compact, so avoid trampling or walking on the garden beds.
c) Raising the beds will help in improving drainage.
Note: Avoid growing root vegetables in this soil, as they will have to struggle to push their path through the heavy, compact soil.
4) LOAMY SOIL
This is the most desirable type of soil and is a pleasure to work with. It is dark and rich, and you fall among the few lucky ones if your soil features under this category. This is an intermediate between sandy and loamy soil. It is the most fertile kind of soil and can hold water well and provide good drainage. It is an excellent soil to grow most plants in and is very easy to work with.
Maintaining the condition of loamy soil
a) Mulching will always help, especially during the summer or dry weather.
b) Conditioning the soil with organic matter once a year ensures that the quality of your soil is maintained.
c) Rotate crops to keep the N.P.K. balance in check.
Tips to keep your soil fertile
- No matter what your soil type, condition it with organic matter like homemade compost, made from Indian cow manure. Organic matter works to improve any and every kind of soil. If your soil is heavy and dense, the organic matter will help in breaking it up and improving the drainage as well as the air circulation. And in the case of sandy soil, the same organic matter will improve water retention along with nutrient retention. I do this once a year to all my vegetable beds. It also helps in maintaining a good pH level for most vegetables.
- Raise livestock (especially Indian origin cows) on your farm. (Or find a way to get organic manure for your farm).
- Rotate the crops.
- Add humus.
- Mulch, mulch and mulch, this is the best food for your soil.
- Use only homemade natural pesticide or fertilizers for your plants.
The plant receives all its nutrients from the soil through its roots. Most essential plant nutrients are soluble if the pH level of the soil ranges between 6.5 to 7. If the pH level of your soil is higher or lower than this range, the soil nutrients start to chemically bind themselves with soil particles and the roots are unable to absorb the nutrients. This, in turn, has a negative impact on the health of your plant.
Improving and maintaining the pH level of your soil between 6.5 to 6.8, will improve the fertility of your soil. However, this is a slow and gradual process and cannot be expected to be achieved overnight. Working generously with organic matter, especially after the monsoon season, will help maintain a good pH balance in your soil.
A regular feed of homemade Jivamrit, (Link to Recipe), helps in maintaining the overall condition of your soil.
The ideal pH level for growing flowers, fruits, and vegetables should be within the range of 6.3 to 7.5. This is also most ideal for earthworms and other microorganisms, which are constantly working to help your plants and improve the quality of your soil.
Once you have your soil tested, you can work on naturally balancing your soil with organic matter to achieve a desirable pH balance.