Off Grid Sustainability - Soil Analysis
Written by Truffle
One of the most vital steps to growing and living sustainably is making sure that the soil you are growing on will give you the best possible yields. Sustainable living is about getting the most out of your land and the best way to do this is to ensure a good foundation for your crops. Adjusting your soil conditions neednít be an industrial operation, at MSL Analysis we offer a full range of soil analysis and with the help of these results simple improvements can be made using waste materials available to anyone or naturally by working with the biological processes of dozens of plants known for centuries to contribute to soil health but sadly now fallen by the wayside in favour of large scale intensive monoculture farming.
Some common and easily solved problems with soil include texture (the mix of sand, clay and silt), pH and levels of NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium; the three major nutrients needed for healthy plant growth).
The texture of soil affects how well the land drains, how effectively soil holds nutrients and minerals and how readily it can be cultivated. The three main components that make up soil are sand, clay and silt and the most productive soils are those which contain a roughly equal mix of all three as this gives an ideal mix of chemical and physical properties for cultivation and crop growth. There are crude measures that can be used to assess the make-up of your soil, however, professional analysis is by far the best way to ensure your soil stays productive and healthy for as long as possible. Soils dominated by any one of these components bring with it a large range problems. Very sandy soils drain well and are easily cultivated, however this easy drainage means that quite often water and nutrients drain through too quickly to be utilised by the plants. Silty soils are also well drained and easy to cultivate however they are easily eroded due to the fineness of the grains. Soils with high clay content retain water and nutrients very effectively however they are prone to becoming water logged and require a lot of work to cultivate. Each of these problems can be individually rectified but by far the easiest and most sustainable route to more productive soil is the addition of organic material. This can take many forms which everyone can have access to. Manure from animals is ideal for improving soil texture and nutrient content however people without access to animals need not panic; grass cuttings left on the soil will mulch down and add a very productive top layer to the soil; kitchen and garden waste can be used to start a compost heap which again will add a beneficial layer of nutrients and make the soil more manageable. Even encouraging worms in to your soil will help. However, it is best to know the exact composition of your soil in order to get the most out of it; for example, it is no good simply adding liquid slurry to soil if it has a high sand content. Find out exactly what you are working with in order to make it work for you.
The pH of soil is vital to how well it holds minerals, too acidic and the minerals will react and be leached out by rainwater before the plants have a chance to use them. High soil acidity can also
cause aluminium toxicity which affects plant metabolism and their ability to take up water and
nutrients (in particular, nitrogen) and is a major cause of low plant yields. Highly alkaline soils are associated with mineral deficiencies in plants due to low solubility of minerals in alkaline conditions. Ideally for growing, neutral or slightly alkaline soils are preferred but while acidic soils can quite easily have their pH raised to increase yields, very little can be done to reduce the pH of alkaline soils and it is best to work with alkaline tolerant plants such as wheat should this be the case. Adding lime (CaCO3) to the soil is the most common method used for increasing
pH however other simple and sustainable solutions are available; keeping poultry on the land will help as their droppings will increase and maintain the pH at a suitable level over a period of time; for a slight increase in pH, simply adding organic matter such as grass cuttings or compost may help as this will reduce the concentration of aluminium in the soil and thus lessen its effects on the crop yields. Sometimes however, it may be best to work with your land as it is and there are also many acid-tolerant crops such as potato and rye which can be grown on acidic land. The first step however is to have the soil pH properly analysed and while testing kits are available from garden centres, they are rarely reliable and can often lead you to making the wrong adjustments to your soil. Professional pH analysis is the best way to get the most from your soil from the start.
Both organic and inorganic nutrients are essential to plant health and growth and maintaining the right balance of all of them can be difficult, however the 3 most heavily required and therefore the ones which require replacing/topping up most frequently are nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. The levels of these nutrients can be controlled with the use of fertilisers however this is not ideal when the eventual goal is self-sufficiency. Agricultural experiments conducted at Rothamstead found that plots enriched with fertilisers and plots enriched with farmyard manure maintained very similar crop yields. Compost would also work if manure is not readily available. The problem with using manure or compost is that they donít add enough nitrogen to the soil, to solve this we must turn to a method used for hundreds of years yet now rarely used Ė crop rotation. Leguminous plants naturally fix nitrogen in the soil via an association with a bacterium, using a piece of land to grow peas, beans or clover for 1-2 years will not only provide food but will make the land suitable for growing other crops.
The route to sustainability and self-sufficiency can be made far easier by ensuring that you start off with and maintain a fertile and produce piece of land. At MSL Analysis we offer a range of soil analysis from pH and textural investigation to analysing the presence of base elements and nutrients essential for healthy and efficient plant growth as well as advice on how to get the most out of your soil whether it be what crops would best suit your soil as it is or adjustments you can make to get optimal growing conditions for certain plants.