Tending a vegetable garden is a smart way to enjoy fresh food while reducing grocery bills. But if your soil isn’t fertile, you could end up with unhealthy plants and a crop harvest that’s far smaller than you expected.
What is soil fertility? In short, it’s a measure of how healthy soil is and how well it provides for plant needs. Even the most seasoned green thumbs may struggle to understand the complexities of soil fertility. The following guide will help gardeners understand what goes into fertile soil and how to improve their soil for better plant health.
If managing soil fertility seems too daunting, try the Garden Patch GrowBox. Our system handles plant spacing, watering, and feeding with Jobe’s Organic Fertilizer nutrient patches. It’s the perfect solution for gardeners of all skill levels.
What is soil pH, and why does it matter to plants? Soil pH influences the level of nutrients available to plants, and if it isn’t just right, plant growth could slow down or even stop completely. Soil that’s too acidic or alkaline can also harm plant roots and hinder beneficial bacteria. That’s why it’s important to ensure your soil pH matches the needs of your plants.
Most plants prefer a pH range of 6.5 to 7.5. Some plants, though, do better in soil that’s more acidic or alkaline. You can lower your soil pH with elemental sulfur or iron sulfate if your soil pH is too high. To raise pH, try wood ashes or dolomitic limestone.
Soil Composition and Structure
Soil composition affects the ability to store nutrients and distribute microorganisms to plants. If soil composition is poor, gardeners can amend it with chemical or organic fertilizers.
Soil structure and texture have a big effect on nutrition and plant growth, too. Plants thrive in soil with a loamy texture that contains equal parts silt, sand, and clay. Loam is also rich in humus, a rich material packed with vital soil nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus.
Most plants don’t do well in heavy clay soils. This soil type impacts aeration and makes it difficult for roots to breathe. Just like humans, plant roots need plenty of oxygen to grow. Oxygen also promotes nitrogen-fixing bacteria and other helpful microorganisms.
When temperatures fall, the growth of many plants slows down or stops completely. If temperatures soar, on the other hand, soil can dry out and deprive plants of water. Pests and diseases also thrive in hot conditions, giving plants more challenges to overcome.
Different plants prefer varying temperature ranges, but most grow best in the range of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
When watering plants, it’s best to water the soil, not the leaves. Moisture is important because it carries nutrients to plant roots for absorption. On average, plants need about one inch of water per week.
Most people know that dry soil can kill plants, but fewer realize that too much water will hurt them, too. Clay soil is notorious for draining poorly and starving plants of oxygen. If this happens, roots will start to rot. The GrowBox protects plants from overwatering with its convenient self-watering feature.
What Causes Infertile Soil?
Several factors contribute to poor soil fertility. The most common include:
- Erosion and land degradation
- Not letting the soil rest between crops
- Not using enough fertilizer
- Using excess or inappropriate fertilizers, especially too much chemical fertilizer
- Excessive weeds, which steal nutrients from more desirable plants
- Only growing one type of crop repeatedly in the same area (monoculture)
- Poor weather conditions
- Poor or excessive tilling practices
What Are the Signs of Poor Soil Fertility?
Look out for these signs of unhealthy soil the next time you take a walk through your garden:
- Leaves turning brown or yellow
- Leaves with holes, blotches, or burnt-looking edges
- Stunted growth, or plants that seem smaller than they should be at a certain stage of growth
- Dropped blossoms, vegetables, and fruit
- Water pooling in certain parts of the garden, indicating poor drainage
It can be difficult to tell whether your soil is unhealthy just by looking at it. You can buy soil tests that tell you how much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium your soil contains. For more accurate results, order a soil test from your local university’s agricultural extension.
How To Improve Soil Fertility
If your plants aren’t producing fruits and vegetables as you expect, you may wonder, “What is soil fertility, and how do I improve it?” Try these tips:
- Practice no-till gardening to minimize soil erosion and avoid disturbing plant roots. Instead of tilling, leave plant material in the garden after the season’s harvest. Plant material protects against erosion and breaks down naturally over time, adding essential nutrients to the soil.
- Plant nitrogen-fixing crops, such as alfalfa, lentils, soybeans, chickpeas, and peanuts. These plants take atmospheric nitrogen and convert it into a form of nitrogen plants can use.
- Amend your soil with synthetic or organic fertilizer. Synthetic fertilizers produce results quickly, but it’s easy to add too much. Organic matter breaks down more slowly, giving plants nutrients over time. Organic options include rabbit, chicken, and cow manure, bone and blood meal, worm castings, fish and kelp emulsion, and compost. The GrowBox provides everything plants need to grow, including dolomite for tomatoes, via self-feeding nutrient patches.
- Water plants according to need, not on a schedule.
- Avoid walking on garden beds to prevent soil compaction.
- Avoid placing plants too close together. The GrowBox makes it easy to space plants with no overcrowding.
- Remove diseased plants from the garden as soon as possible.
Stop Guessing About Soil Fertility With the GrowBox
Often, gardeners ask, “What is soil fertility?” and come away overwhelmed by the explanation. If you’re tired of guessing about fertilizer for vegetable gardens, try the Garden Patch GrowBox instead. It takes all the guesswork out of plant care with ideal spacing and special nutrient patches that automatically give your vegetables everything they need. Order online now or contact us at (800) 519-1955 to order by phone.