Thursday, November 10, 2011

Soil Matters

I recently finished James Nardi's Life in the Soil, a gift from a year or so ago*  I found it easy to read, but that may just be because I really need to know more since I began working with less than ideal soil for my garlic trials. I was also nudged into finishing this book by my recent experiments with compost down at the beach farm. I've been digging holes around the plot so to dump a week's worth of coffee grinds, egg shells, vegetable scraps, etc. Things had grown 50% larger near the compost holes. Meanwhile I had spread bagged compost all over the plot and I can't say I saw any difference in the growth over last year. Life in the soil. It matters.

Nardi's book goes over the basics, working his way through soil chemistry, microscopic biota, then way up to large mammals and their relationship with the soil. There are so much bacteria in the soil that slightly larger organisms actually produce antibiotics to tame soil bacteria populations. If you ever wondered what those bugs were underneath your compost or leaf litter, you'll find them in this book. He even rates many of the organisms (fungi, bacteria, insects, etc.) value to the soil and to your gardening.

Soil science can be dry stuff, yet I was able to finish this book in about 10 days of subway commuting from middle Brooklyn to Columbus Circle (I am not a quick reader). Nothing used to make my head spin more than anions and cations, but I think I have the hang of it now, which is great, because I am knee deep in hydrogen ions. Anions (an-eye-ahnz) are negatively-charged particles and cations (cat-eye-ahnz) are positively-charged particles.

The particles that make up clay and humus soils happen to have many negatively-charged ions. In fact, humus has the greatest number of negatively-charged ions thanks to the many nooks and crannies of its irregularly shaped particles. These negative charges attract positive ions, cations, like:

Potassium    Iron   Copper
Zinc    Calcium   Magnesium
Manganese   Nickel

In the water held between soil particles, you'll find negatively-charged ions in solution, the anions, like:

Nitrogen   Phosphorus   Sulfur
Boron   Molybdenum   Chlorine

If your soil is nutrient poor, it may not have enough cations to bind to all those negatively charged soil particles. In their absence, positively charged hydrogen ions take their place. Soil bound with too many hydrogen ions is acid soil, which is less favorable to most of our food and garden plants. When we lime our soil, we are adding minerals like calcium and magnesium which are positively charged cations intended to displace the hydrogen ions.

There will be a test next week.

*Do I have to mention that I am not professionally reviewing this book, nor have I received a free book, nor am I paid to say such things about this book? I guess I do.

1 comment:

  1. Great stuff, Frank! Though I suspect the people who really need to understand more of soil chemistry are not regular readers of this blog.


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