Recognizing Poor Soil
Is My Soil Healthy?
Since plants are trapped in one place, the soil they grow in needs to provide everything they need to survive. That includes both the nutrient content they require and a texture that absorbs water and allows their roots to spread out properly. Some hearty plants will happily thrive in low-nutrient soil, while others are very demanding, but all plants, even desert-dwelling succulents and epiphytes like orchids, have nutritional needs that should be accounted for in the soil they live in.
Geography, local plant and animal life, and human activity all impact the soil. You may be lucky enough to live in a rich, fertile part of the world, or you may be working with challenging sand or clay, but thanks to modern science and widely available resources, virtually any land can be made into a personal oasis.
Recognizing Poor Soil
Some conspicuous red flags to look for are the color and texture of your soil. To sustain both plant and animal life, your soil needs a healthy mix of organic material. Organic material is broken-down plant and animal matter like compost or manure. This organic material is the foundational element of all the complex processes that provide your plant with nutrients. If your soil is a very pale brown, tan or reddish-orange color, that usually indicates a low concentration of organic material. Another indicator is texture: if the soil sticks together in hard clumps or has a rough, grainy texture like sand, it’s most likely low in organic material and therefore low in nutrients.
You should also look for signs of insect life in the soil. Earthworms, small beetles, isopods (pill bugs), and other insects thrive in nutrient-rich soil, and if insect life is well-established in your soil, it creates a cycle that helps to keep the soil healthy over time. Surprisingly, you can buy earthworms online, but for most people, buying topsoil, fertilizer, or other additives is a more practical solution. Once the soil is healthy and able to sustain more living things, the bugs will gradually move in on their own.
Recognizing Nutrient Imbalance
The appearance of your soil is a great indicator of what you can do to improve it, but it can’t tell you everything. There’s much more complexity to nature than just healthy vs unhealthy soil. Different plants have different nutritional needs, so even dark, springy, rich-looking soil may not produce exactly the results you want. Nitrogen, for example, is an essential nutrient for plant growth, but too much nitrogen can cause your tomato plants to produce big robust leaves and hardly any fruit.
Your plants will give you signs that something is off: yellowed leaves, slow or weak growth, or a failure to produce flowers or fruit are all signs that the nutrient balance in your soil may be wrong for the plants growing there. Unless you have a lot of horticultural experience, interpreting these indicators and trying to decide what nutrients your plants are lacking can be very challenging. For a more straightforward answer, you might consider a professional soil test /soil-testing/ to help you understand what fertilizer or additives you need to add to your soil to produce better results. Some do-it-yourself tests can give you basic information, but sending your sample off to a soil testing lab /about-element/ will give you more complete information for a surprisingly reasonable price.