Pick up a handful of soil from your garden. I bet that you are thinking, "this is ordinary, unexciting earth". Yet it is one of nature's miracles, and one of her most complex products. Your success as a gardener will for the most part depend upon its condition, so take the initial bold step in gardening.... get to understand your soil.
All soils are composed of four basic components, these are:
Water - Water is important for the support of both plant and soil life - it is also the carrier of nutrients. Water is absorbed into humus and absorbed on to the surface of particles. Water adheres tightly to clay, restricting both drainage and uptake by the roots.
Air - Air is important for the support of plant life and desired for soil life - it is also required for the breakdown of organic matter to release nutrients. Movement of air is necessary for avoiding the build up of toxic gases. This movement takes place throughout the soil pores.
Mineral particles - The non-living skeleton of your soil comes from the decomposition of rocks by weathering. The parent rock usually (but not at all times) lies under the soil and both the fertility and size of the particles are governed by the sort of parent rock.
Organic matter - Fertile soils contain at least 5 per cent organic matter. This is present as a mixture of living, dead and decomposed organisms, both animal and vegetable. True humus is the dark jelly-like substance which binds mineral particles into crumbs.
The physical quality of the resulting blend that we know as soil is described as its texture or structure, but these two terms do not mean the exact same thing.
Soil texture: refers to the proportions of the different sized mineral particles that are present. When course particles prevail, the soil is described as light. When the particles are minute, the soil is called heavy. The perfect soil lies between these two extremes. The course and minute particles should be evenly balanced to produce the medium-texture soil known as loam. Soil scientists have recognised seventeen or more types of mineral soil texture, but for the average gardener there are just 8 basic types, these can be put in to 3 groups. Light soil, medium soil and heavy soil.
Soil structure; refers to the way the mineral particles are attached collectively, they may be grouped as clods, plates or crumbs. A crumb structure is first-class - it is what we call 'friable soil' with a 'good tilth'.
Your soil might be nothing like a crumbly loam. It may be a back-breaking clay or it could be sandy stuff which always needs feeding and watering. Don't despair, it is quite simple to alter the structure of any soil. Organic matter will cement sand grains into crumbs. Digging, liming and organic matter achieve the same effect on clay particles.
The improvement might be spectacular, but you cannot change the basic texture unless you add vast quantities of the deficient mineral particle. So your soil will remain basically clayey, sandy etc., this means that you should, where possible, choose plants which the catalogues recommend for your particular soil type.
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A fantastic amount of my time is spent in my garden, but as I am getting older and things are getting harder to do. I have decided to use a firm called Landscape Gardeners. So far they have given me all the help and advice that I have asked for. I still do a bit of pottering around my own garden.
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