Seeing all the weeds that have sprung up in the newly planted beds brought to mind nutrients and soil health, so we reviewed some of those items. To wit: Major Cation Nutrients. Cations are ions (atoms) that carry a positive charge. The major cation nutrients, which are used in relatively large quantities by plants, are:
- Potassium (K) — a major cation nutrient. Needed in greater quantities than any other nutrient, except perhaps nitrogen. Vital for numerous plant functions including protein and starch formation, cell division, photosynthesis, cellular structure of stalks, and disease-resistance. Most soils contain high levels of K but most of it is unavailable to plants. Biologically active, non-compacted, high humus soils are best for assuring the availability of adequate K.
- Calcium (Ca) — the most important element in the soil for assuring good soil structure. It is present in the soil in much greater quantities than any other nutrient. Ca is critical for maintaining a balance between the cation nutrients and the acid-forming, non-nutrients (hydrogen and aluminum). Ca is critical in maintaining a moderate pH (6.0 to 7.5), which enables most plants to thrive. Calcium is needed only in small quantities in the plant, but is essential for cell wall building, seed formation, nitrogen uptake, and for eliminating waste products.
- Magnesium (Mg) — is a primary constituent of chlorophyll, the green pigment in plants which is the receptor of light energy in photosynthesis. Mg is also closely linked to all metabolic processes involving phosphorus. In wet climates, Mg can sometimes be deficient.
Anions, The other group of major nutrients are negatively charged ions, or anions. Anions, in contrast to cations, are not held on exchange sites, but are constituents of microorganisms. Anions are released to plants through the decay of organic matter and from rainwater and soil water.
- Nitrogen (N) — an essential component of plant proteins, which control the movement of energy within the plant and overall plant health. Chlorophyll, enzymes, and hormones are all proteins. N is probably the nutrient most likely to be deficient in a plant, causing stunted and poorly developed plants. All soil life requires N in abundant amounts. Unlike other plant nutrients, N does not exist in the soil in mineral form, but rather is derived from the atmosphere, which contains 78% N. Unfortunately, plants can’t use this gaseous form of N. We need free-living bacteria species, such as azotobacter and clostridia, to convert atmospheric N to plant-available N forms. These bacteria live on the roots of leguminous plants such as peas, clover, beans, vetch, and alfalfa. We call this process nitrogen fixation, and these plants N-fixers.
- Phosphorus (P) — essential in virtually every metabolic process including fruit, flower and seed formation, protein synthesis, and cell division. It is a constituent of DNA. Phosphorus is often in large supply in the soil, but most of it is unavailable to the plant.
- Sulfur (S) — essential ingredient in many of the amino acids. Legumes require large amounts of S as do many beneficial soil microorganisms. It acts in similar ways to N in the plant, such as yellowing leaves when it is deficient.
In addition to the above elements, we also are thinking about the texture of the soil. Namely, we want to look at the clay content (clay holds water and nutrients, how much silt we have (provides air space in the soil), and what percentage is sand (excellent for drainage). I also want to get an idea for what organic material is present in the dirt, too.
Of course, we wouldn’t be talking about soil if I didn’t bring up compost. We flipped some of the piles this week, because they were getting anaerobic. Anaerobic compost is just rotting, not decomposing into humus. It stinks and is not good for the garden. To avoid rot in the compost piles we pay special attention to three things: Composition (what goes into the pile), Structure (how the pile is put together), and Moisture. When there’s too much water, you get rot. Remedy? Flip it to dry out, and add some more brown material. Also, adding effective microorganisms to the pile will help out a lot.
If you’ve got compost, you can also make compost tea to use in the garden. We discussed that, and the effective use of red wriggler worms in compost. Compost tea is great because it’s a liquid you can water the plants with, rather than having to work compost into the soil. Good times.
Lastly, it wouldn’t be a day out on the farm if there weren’t some fences to mend. So we did some of that, which was fun because that area was overrun with hemlock and will be transformed over the winter into a whole new space. We’re looking forward to putting in some more woodworking and clay throwing equipment in the shed, so that’ll be fun in the coming months.