Of all the college classes in which I could have made a better grade, I wish I had done better in Agronomy 301, the fundamental soils course.
If you think about it, our existence relies upon that thin layer of topsoil that grows vegetation for livestock, as well as the fruits, nuts and vegetables for our table. Without production of leafy plant material, its fruit and even its seeds, we couldn’t sustain ourselves.
And you say you have a brown thumb?
The soil in your lawn, garden, pasture or field is incredibly complex, worthy of an entire academic field of study. Yet, it can be explained in some very fundamental ways for us to be successful.
At the simplest level, soil consists of mineral particles, water, air and organic matter. The three mineral particles are sand, silt and clay. This threesome is the answer most knowledgeable folks give when asked what “makes up” soil. Indeed, the amounts of sand, silt and clay in your soil do greatly affect the soil structure.
Air and water often throw folks off. Water makes sense — everyone knows that water makes things grow. Air surprises many people until you think about compacted ground (such as a pathway) or instances where one over-watered a plant and killed it by drowning it. Yes, roots have to breathe air. So air and water are both critical to plants.
Organic matter gains a world of attention. To be clear, this has nothing to do with the term “organically grown.” Organic matter is comprised of decomposing plant and animal material at different stages of decomposition, as well as living things such as microbes, fungus, earthworms and much more. Stated in a very simple way, there are three kinds of organic matter: The living, the dead and the very dead!
And to be clear, the addition of organic matter solves a world of issues.
Is your ground too sandy and won’t hold moisture? Add organic matter.
Is your ground to clayey and is easily compacted? Add organic matter.
Is your ground so poor that nothing seems to grow? Add worlds of organic matter.
Most soil has somewhere between 1% and 6% organic matter. That may not sound like much (and it isn’t) but that range truly is substantial in the impact it can have on growing plants. Home gardeners typically have very high levels if they turn in a few inches of compost annually. And the result from adding that much compost each year is impressive.
One may ask why this is so emphasized and seemingly in short supply. Our soil’s organic matter is constantly reduced by the active, living soil microbes that break down the dead material and release the nutrients. In the warm, moist climate like we have, this microbial action may be taking place year-round. Certainly, when you look at the rest of Texas, no region west of us makes more organic matter than we do, but the high moisture we enjoy, and the warmer climate, allows microbes to continually be at work breaking down organic matter.
Our goal then, must be to mindfully be adding organic matter to the soils. Perhaps no better application on pastures and hay meadows around here besides chicken litter has been used in decades.
In urban settings the addition of bark, pine straw or other natural mulches in flower beds is incredibly helpful. Home gardeners can till in compost and commercial vegetable producers can plant winter cover crops.
It cannot be understated that the soil we depend upon can be greatly improved — no matter what you are growing — with the addition of organic matter.
I’ll continue this topic and have a seminar planned on Building Your Soil at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at the Angelina County Extension office. There is no fee for the program.