Organic soil improvement

The process of organic soil improvement begins with detailed soil analysis to help optimize the physical, chemical and biological attributes that are important for sustainable productivity. This is especially important for those land uses that depend most heavily on proper soil function:

  • Pasture
    Pasture is not simply grass, but an entire community of plants. The members of this community have their own strategies for competing with the others for space and nutrients in the soil. This means that pasture management is more like applied ecology than simple crop production. Sustainable soil management is of vital importance, but so is grazing management.
  • Vineyards, Orchards, Nut & Olive groves
    Unlike pasture, trees and vines do not have roots evenly distributed across the whole area. Most of the active feeder roots will be in the so-called 'Drip zone' a few inches either side of an imaginary line on the ground that traces the outermost extent of the foliage canopy above. This has implications for organic soil improvement that many people overlook.
  • Tropical Tree Crops
    Many of these tree crops are highly specialized, some are best grown (or can only be grown) under a forest canopy, making the whole subject of organic soil improvement especially tricky. Here, standard approaches may actually do more harm than good.
  • Agro-forestry
    In general, the same principles for Orchards and Vineyards will also apply here, although tree produced for paper or timber may be planted at higher densities and this can make access more difficult. However, farm-based agro-forestry for specialized purposes such as production of logs for Shitake Mushroom growing pose special problems. In such cases, nutrient inputs must be carefully controlled and biological activity optimized so that roots and stumps of a previous crop can be decomposed before the next is harvested - while also minimizing the risk of disease from these decomposing roots.

While the details may vary for each of these cases, Organic Soil Improvement can be summarized as a 5-step process.

  • Identify ProblemsYou cannot fix something if you don't know what (if anything) is broken. For this reason, the process of Organic Soil Improvement must begin with a detailed soil test. You can download a Free soil testing e-book here.
  • Get PhysicalThe most important requirement is the physical environment that supports it. In a rain forest, we would talk about climate and geology, but in soil it is structure and friability.Soils may suffer from a range of problems. Some may be soft and sloppy when wet and drain poorly. Others may compact easily or just set like concrete when dry. There are also soils that seal themselves off with a surface crust or form deep cracks that tear the roots of plants.The traditional view of such problems has been that the relative proportions of sand, silt and clay making up the soil cause all these things, and so are beyond anyone’s ability to change them.Fortunately, research shows that the proportions of five elements – Calcium, Magnesium, Sodium, Potassium and Hydrogen – work together to determine the functioning and friability of soil.With good structure and friability, the soil will be more tolerant of cultivation; it will retain moisture, but drain more easily and remain well aerated; it will provide better access to roots and availability of the nutrients they need.
  • Plant NutritionThe next step is to provide controlled plant nutrition based on the plant-available levels of nutrients presently in the soil.It is important, however, not to rush into this too quickly as materials such as Lime, Dolomite and Gypsum (used in step 1) need time take effect. Also, Lime and Dolomite can react with many fertilizers (especially trace elements) to render them unavailable to plants.
  • Soil BiologyTo help get the best results from each of the first two steps, using the appropriate bio-active materials after each Lime/Gypsum or fertilizer application will speed up the whole process.
  • Monitor and AdjustThe effort and expense of getting your soil working right does not go on and on. Repeating the soil test on a regular basis will let you keep things working properly with only small ‘top-up’ applications, rather than waiting for everything to go back the way it was and starting again.

Further Reading:

Organic Soil Improvement with Compost.

This page is from our Gardening site, but it covers a number of simple composting methods, including the biodynamic composting method.

Causes and prevention of soil degradation

Too often, people have problems improving their soil, because they are unaware to the things they do that cause soil degradation.

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