What to do with the results of your soil analysis

The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.-Wendell Berry

Studying wine taught me that there was a very big difference between soil and dirt: dirt is to soul what zombies are to humans. Soil is full of life, while dirt is devoid of it.- Olivier Magny

So, you are looking at the results of your soil analysis.  It is made of graphs and numbers, likely with some suggestion of an NPK application.  Ignore the suggestion at the bottom and find the PH.  

To refresh you, an acidic soil is a PH under 7 and an alkaline soil has a PH above 7.  This is a measurement of hydrogen in the soil.  At different PH, different nutrients are available.  Most plants like a PH around 6.5-6.8.  There are, however, many exceptions.  You will see information about PH requirements in the descriptions in your seed catalog.  Where it is much off the neutral range, it is usually stated.  The ideal for each plant isn’t about acidity or hydrogen, it is about what nutrients it can access.

Ours looked like this when we first tested:

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This is another piece of land near us:

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If your soil is too acid, the standard augmentation to raise

PH is garden/agricultural lime.  This works at first but has long term consequences.  We were told by everyone we asked that you can’t add too much lime.  With a PH in the 4’s, this was great news.  It turned out it was bad information.  When you add lime, you add calcium and, usually, magnesium.  When you add too much calcium, you bind up other minerals in the soil, making them unavailable to the plants.  This usually takes a couple seasons to show up.  I have a bed that produces sad little plants.  Even most weeds don’t like it.  It is the bed I put a large amount of lime into two seasons in a row to raise the PH.  Now I am paying.  It is nutritionally so poor that almost nothing grows in it.  Everything is undersized and looks terrible.  Since the large lime application was the only difference, it is almost certainly the problem.  I’m guessing the next soil test from this bed will show obscenely high calcium.  

Too much lime can also raise the PH too high and tie up nutrients.

So what should someone like me do to raise PH when we want to grow more than will grow in our current soil profile?  First, as always, look to enriching the soil with organic matter (OM) to increase humus.  If you still need to bring things up, small amounts of wood ash will do it and add micronutrients at the same time.  I don’t recommend large quanities because there are trace amounts of heavy metals in some ash and, as with lime, you don’t want to raise it too much and bind up nutrients.

If you are on one of the rarer pieces of land that have a PH up around 8, you may want to lower it a bit.  The best way to do this is, again, adding OM to your soil. The recommendation to is usually to add sulfur.  This is like adding any other single item to your soil, possibly helpful in the short term but it won’t actually fix anything in the long run.  The conditions that make soil alkaline (sweet) will keep bringing it back to that state.  You have to fundamentally change the structure to change the soil.

The alternative to messing with your soil PH is to grow what likes your soil just as it is.

So what about the rest of this information?

This all matters but don’t over complicate soil health.  Few people have a 6.8PH and perfect nutrient profile and your analysis says nothing about the micronutrients and bacteria in your ground.  Look for glaring deficiencies.  Look for extreme excesses. Our soil was incredibly high in iron when we started.  We had signs of iron toxicity.  We still do in some areas.  We initially brought in outside compost by the semi full and planted in that, cutting it with less than 50% native soil.  That worked the first year but with the deluges that come with hurricanes hitting the coasts in our part of the world, the small particulate size allowed nutrient leaching at a rate that made it too expensive to consider as a long term fix.  Our approach has been to increase the humus and build up the soil the last two years.  We have seen a decrease in yellowing and the tilth has improved immeasurably.  Part of this is from growing green manures and leaving the weeds (without seeds) to decompose.  Some of the most impressive results we have seen are the result of allowing wood chip and nut mulches to breakdown.

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IMG_20151218_093544245  

I cannot tell you what to do about each specific abundance or deficiency in your earth but you will find the prescription for total soil health is the same as it has been for all of history.  Mimic nature by allowing OM to return to the soil and break down.  (Do I sound like like a broken record?  Because I feel like one.)  I think of it as the From Dust, to Dust principle.  Neglected land doesn’t say empty.  Nature grows things and then they die and make soil.  Look at the abandon pavement and the plants growing in every crevasse.  Look in the bed of an old pickup behind some dilapidated barn.  There are plants and soil developing.  Steward by that principle for a healthy soil.  

What those excesses and deficiencies tell you for the immediate future are how much augmentation needs to take place, allowing you to develop a plan and know what is possible in the short term.  Use a search engine and look up the extremes from your soil analysis.  Find out what is recommended, what will grow in those conditions and what kind of problems you can expect.  Often you can find a holistic prescription that will work with your long term program.  And remember to be suspicious of the quick fix.

The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself.Franklin D. Roosevelt

Suggested watching

This is a long (1.5 hours) and VERY informative video of a lecture given by Dr Lorrin Pang about GMOs.  I think he does a great job of explaining base genetics.  

Dr. Pang in HI

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Love from the farm

Happy eating, Katy

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