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Understanding the balance of soil, plants and insects.

Why do weeds, insects and disease become a problem? Why don't they bother every plant in a row? Organic farmers and gardeners have learned to recognize edible weeds and are tolerant of weeds in general. But I wasn't satisfied with eating weeds instead of sweet corn. I wanted to know why each weed was growing this year in this exact spot.

Weeds function as part of nature's soil-balancing process. They sprout at a given time, often after years of dormancy, because of an ideal combination of soil chemistry, moisture, temperature and various other conditions. The right combinations allow them to thrive while their roots secrete hormones that inhibit other seeds from sprouting. It's a case of survival of the fittest. Each type of weed accumulates certain chemicals over the course of its life. When it dies it is consumed by soil microbes and its nutrients return to the soil.

To control weeds, the organic gardener can pull and compost them before they set seed, till annuals under as a green manure crop, or test the soil and provide soil conditions that don't favor weed growth. Weeds can indicate soil problems: mustard suggests lack of sulfur, sorrel indicates acid soils, plantain and dandelions thrive on compacted soils. In each case, correcting the soil problems should reduce the weed problem.

Solving most gardening problems is a lot more interesting than spraying everything with pesticides. Develop an understanding of soil, then use your knowledge of soil, plants and insects to figure out how to have the healthiest garden possible.

Just taking a handful of soil and sifting through it tells a lot about its texture, color, and water content, and will give you some idea of its resident population of roots and insect life.

Soils high in sand are easily identified by their gritty texture and their tendency to both absorb and lose water quickly. They react quickly to change of temperature and are easy to till. Because there are large spaces between particles, there is generally plenty of air available for roots.

Soils high in silt absorb water much more slowly and therefore tend to erode easily during heavy rains. Because the spaces between particles are smaller, they also dry out more slowly during dry spells, but they pay for this feature by having poorer air exchange abilities than sandy soils.

Soils high in clay absorb water very slowly, but clay soils can store nutrients efficiently, releasing them slowly as needed.

The fourth mineral-containing component of soil is organic matter. The term "organic matter" covers a wide range of substances, most of them chemically complex, including partly-decomposed plant and animal remains as well as humus, the end product of the decay process.

Humus is nature's storehouse of carbon, nitrogen (N) and other minerals necessary to plant and microbial growth. It is often listed separately as a component of total organic matter because of its importance in the tilth and food and water holding ability of soil.

One way to check your soil type is to put some in a quart jar with water, shake it up, then let it stand for 24 hours. By then it will have settled, with sand on the bottom, silt layer next, clay on top, so you have a pretty good idea what your garden soil mix is.

Or, to get a close look at the make-up of your soil, dig a deep hole and observe the layers of the soil profile. From the top down, you will see first the organic matter of the rooting zone, then down through successive layers to the soil's rock layer.

Soil compaction: You may deal with compaction by adding a soil conditioner. Humic acid, for example, clumps soil particles somewhat, creating air spaces between them, thus improving the structure. Farmers and gardeners with problem soils, either extremely heavy clay or pure sand, need to add quantities of organic matter.

Working the soil deeply and deep cultivation can help overcome compaction. Or, plant a deep rooting cover crop like birdsfoot trefoil, crownvetch or sweet clover. As the roots of these crops begin to work downwards through the soil they create channels through which water and nutrients move more freely.

The roots of a farm or garden's well-being are found in the living Earth. With a better understanding of how the soil ecosystem cooperates with plants and insects, we can learn how to manage our food production better, and help assure the health of our soil, crops and ourselves.
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Title Annotation:organic gardening
Author:Miller, Elizabeth; Miller, Crow
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 1998
Words:747
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