Soil: A Delicate Balancing Act

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People know that in order to make a plant grow it requires sunlight, water and tender loving care, but an often overlooked aspect is the soil. It’s not simply a place to stick your plants, but a delicate system of nutrients and pH that can make or break your plant’s growth.


One of the building blocks of good plant growth is nitrogen. It’s what you put into the soil when you introduce fertilizer. Most soils don’t have enough nitrogen, thus the need to augment it. Without nitrogen, your plants won’t grow or will be weak.

Nitrogen is their food source, and like most living creatures, without food they can’t grow to be big and strong. The plants may survive, but will not have much strength to grow or combat natural hazards such as insects and disease. If there is too much, then you’re over-stuffing the plant and while the plant itself will grow lush, there will be little fruit or blooms.

Nitrogen Testing

How do you know how mush nitrogen is in your soil? There are tests available to determine your soil’s nitrogen levels. Different plants and vegetables grow best at different nitrogen levels, so compare your levels against the best levels for your plants. You can usually have this done for free or at a low cost from the local Extension office.

Adjusting Nitrogen Levels

Too Little - If you have too little nitrogen, then add natural or commercial fertilizers. Natural fertilizers include decomposing plant materials and excrement. These are better for the environment, but either cost more or take a long time to create through composting. Commercial fertilizers are a bit lighter on the pocketbook and are jam packed with nutrients, but not as good for Mother Earth.

Too Much - Too much nitrogen is a little trickier and is usually caused by too much fertilization. Excess nitrogen has to naturally be used up, unless you are willing to completely replace the soil. You can leave the area alone and see if it naturally lowers on its own or put in plants to specifically leech out the nitrogen. These plants won’t grow correctly, but it will set you up well for the next round.

pH Testing

Soil pH is how acidic or basic your soil is. Generally, plants grow best in a slightly acidic soil, but too much acid or if it’s too basic, then it can hinder plant growth. It’s suggested to have the soil pH tested every few years. You can send a sample to a lab or do it yourself with various at-home test kits available.

You’re going to want to test the soil about three months prior to actually planting anything. If the soil is too acidic or basic, then you’ll need time for it to adjust to the changes you’ll be making. Changing the pH simply requires mixing in the proper elements to counteract the imbalance.

Adjusting pH

If the soil is too acidic, then add lime or wood ash. Let is settle for a week or two and retest the soil. Repeat until the soil is at the correct level. If the soil is too basic, then add sulfur and wait a week or two of it to impact the soil and retest.

Soil is a delicate balancing act and changing one thing may end up changing something else. By keeping a close on eye on it, you’re increasing your chances for a good harvest or beautiful flower garden.

(Now that you know what you're shooting for, take a look at these simple fertilizer and compost recipes.)

photo by Chiot's Run