Soil fertility FAQs

How can I improve the fertility of my soil?

Soil fertility is built up over a period of time by adding the correct fertilisers in the required amounts.Bulky organic material such as garden compost, farmyard lanure, composted bark, and peat will help to promote fertility by encouraging bacterial activity in the soil. The correct amount of each major fertiliser to apply can be ascertained by carrying out a soil test. It will be necessary to sample the soil in various places to determine the treatment required.

How can I test my soil to see if it needs feeding?

Soil-test outfits are simple to use. They can be purchased from garden stores and will test for nitrogen, phosphate, and potash. Charts supplied with the kit indicate the amount of each nutrient to be used for particular types of crops.

Is organic fertiliser better than inorganic (chemical) fertiliser?

Plants are unable to distinguish between either type: soil bacteria convert both into a form which can be taken up by the plant. Organic and inorganic fertilisers can be purchased in slow-release and fast-acting forms; organic fertilisers usually cost more. See also 9.

Can I use poultry manure around my plants?

Poultry manure on its own is very concentrated and would certainly scorch plants if used fresh. It is better to dry it and use it sparingly around the plants, or to rake it into the soil before planting. Alternatively, it can be soaked in water and used as a liquid feed. Poultry manure collected from deep-litter houses is usually mixed with wood shavings and should be added to the compost heap or dug into the ground.

I can obtain large quantities of spent-mushroom compost. Is it beneficial?

Used in moderation spent-mushroom compost is very useful because it is full of plant food. It is light in weight and for that reason is unfortunately often used to excess. A 50 mm (2 in) layer dug into the top 200 mm (8 in) is adequate for most soils. It can also be used as a mulch.

Bear in mind that mushroom compost often contains a high level of chalk, so it would tend to raise the pH of the soil and harm lime-hating plants.

I have heard gardeners referring to NPK. What does that mean?

The letters stand for the chemical elements that plants need in greatest abundance if they are to thrive: nitrogen (chemical symbol N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). These chemicals are often mixed together as a compound fertiliser, which is generally referred to as NPK. See also 11.

What are trace elements?

Plants require a balanced food supply consisting of many differen chemicals. Some, such as nitrogen phosphate and potash, are required in large amounts; others, called trace elements, are needed only in minute quantities; for example, a soil concentration of 1 ppm (1 part per million parts of soil) of boron is sufficient for most plants. Other trace elements include magnesium, manganese, zinc, molybdenum, iron and copper, all present in fertile soil.

What is the nitrogen cycle?

When plants take up nitrogen fron the soil, they convert it to proteins. These proteins within the leaves o: plants are eaten by animals, which convert them into forms of nitrogen. The animal droppings return to the soil to nourish bacteria, which complete the cycle by converting the nitrogen into a form that can be taken up by plants. That is a simplified version of the nitrogen cycle.

What is a base dressing?

An application of fertiliser made before seed is sown or before plants have been set out in the soi is known as a base dressing. Fertiliser applied after sowing or planting is known as top dressing.

How should fertiliser be applied to the soil?

The easiest way to apply dry fertiliser before sowing seeds or planting is to measure out the quantity required, then halve it so that one half is broadcast byhand in one direction over the plot. The remaining half is then broadcast at right angles to the first half. In this way, the coverage will be more uniform.

Supplementary feed as a top dressing for established plants can be trickled alongside. Fertilisers can scorch plants. When applying dry fertiliser take care to avoid plant leaves and soft stems; root scorch ; avoided by applying fertiliser to moist soil and watering it in.

Is it true that sawdust and wood shavings starve plants?

Any raw material which does not contain sufficient nitrogen to feed the soil bacteria will cause starvation in plants. Such material is better added to the compost heap to ferment and rot down before it is added to the soil.

Weeds do not seem to thrive in ny garden. A neighbour thinks the soil may be sick. What exactly does this mean?

Weeds and plants need moisture, air, and warmth together with food to grow properly, and the correct soil pH is important for most plants, too. It is possible that your soil contains too much fertiliser, or pests and diseases may be present. It would be a good idea to test your soil .

When should I apply fertiliser?

Fertiliser often takes a few days to become available to the plants’ root system, depending on soil temperature. A base dressing should, therefore, be applied 7 to 10 days before planting. Established plants require feeding from time to time, usually during spring and again in the summer. In addition to dry-fertiliser dressings, liquid fertiliser is beneficial.

Should earthworms be encouraged?

Worms can be a nuisance in lawn maintenance because their casts can give the lawn a hard, bumpy surface. Apart from that, worms are largely beneficial: they help to cultivate the soil by burrowing and distributing organic material; and they help water and air percolate through the soil so that they become available to plant roots.

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