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Soil is more than N-P-K
For the novice gardener, this is perhaps one of the most confusing aspects of gardening. A plant needs the ideal balance of nutrients in the soil in order for it to survive. Plants need about 15 nutrients from the soil, including (Periodic Table Element in parenthesis):
- Primary Nutrients
- Nitrogen (N)
- Potassium (K)
- Phosphorus (P)
- Secondary Nutrients
- Calcium (Ca)
- Magnesium (Mg)
- Sulphur (S)
- Trace Elements
- Iron (Fe)
- Manganese (Mn)
- Boron (B)
- Copper (Cu)
- Molybdenum (Mo)
- Zinc (Zn)
- Sodium (Na)
- Chlorine (Cl)
The quantities of these elements found in soil are primarily dependent upon the type of rock from which that soil was created. For example, limestone and chalk soils are naturally high in calcium, while granite soils are often rich in a variety of elements. Most people are aware of the “N–P–K” numbers printed on all fertilizer bags. These, in order of printing, represent the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (sometimes referred to as potash) percentages contained in that particular fertilizer. For instance, 10–10-10 fertilizer is 10% nitrogen, 10% phosphorus, and 10% potassium. And, on the same subject, 100 pounds of 10-10-10 is exactly the same as 200 pounds of 5-5-5! No difference.
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Nutrients are secondary to proper pH balance
Whilst a soil might contain all the elements a plant requires to survive, these elements might not be available to the plant, usually because of the pH of the soil. So, you could have prepared your soil as best as you could and ensure all the elements are present, but if the pH is not right, your plant won’t be able to use the elements and might not thrive. Think of it like this: in the kitchen, a recipe might call for several spices and herbs to make the desired flavor, but, without the right salt balance, none of the flavors will come through; either bland or overly salty.
You can actually measure the pH of your soil relatively easily by purchasing pH testing strips. Alternatively, a cheap method to test relative pH without test strip accuracy is with using some baking soda and vinegar; to do this, get 2 samples of soil, mix into testing bowls/tubes with water enough to cover, then add baking soda to one batch and vinegar to the other; if you get a bubbly reaction from the baking soda, you have alkaline soil; if you get a bubbly reaction from the vinegar, you have an acidic soil. Strongly acidic soil will have pH below 4.5, moderately acidic soil will have a pH between 4.6-5.5, slightly acidic soil will have a pH of 5.6-6.5, neutral soil will have pH of 6.6-7.5 and finally an alkaline soil will have a pH of 7.5 or higher.
Most soils will be either neutral or slightly acidic. Most plants flourish in a soil where the pH is around 6.5, as this is the point at which most of the elements can be taken up as nutrients for the plant. So, we may need to adjust the pH of the soil – but this is easily done!
– To raise the pH of your soil – make it more alkaline – add lime and use alkaline fertilizers such as bone meal, nitro-chalk, and basic slag.
— 5 pounds of Prilled Dolomite Lime by “Down to Earth Organic”
– To lower the pH of your soil – make it more acidic – add a nitrogenous feed of sulphate of ammonia or use yellow Sulphur (aka flowers of Sulphur)
— 5 pounds of Sulfur Powder by “Greenway Biotech, Inc.”
— 8 pounds of Ammonium Sulfate (2 pack of 4 pound bags) by “Hi-Yield” : 21-0-0
Nutrient deficiency identification and what to do about them
Once you’re happy that your pH is right, and you begin growing your plants, you might start spotting signs that there is an issue with the balance of elements in the soil. Plants, like humans, are very good at letting you know when they are nutritionally off balance. Below are common symptoms of a deficiency in some of the vital plant nutrients:
- Nitrogen (N) deficiencies may present as a uniform loss of color across the leaves, with the oldest leaves being the first to fade. To add nitrogen to your soil, consider manure, blood meal, fish meal, nitrate and Chilean potash.
- 5 pounds of Blood Meal from “Down to Earth Organic” // 1/2 pound // 50 pounds : 12-0-0
- 5 pounds of Calcium Nitrate from “PowerGrow Systems” // 1 pound // 25 pounds : 15.5-0-0
- Phosphorus (P) deficiencies may present as stunted growth. Leaves may be much darker than normal and lower leaves may even appear purple in places. Necrosis may occur. To add phosphorus to soil, consider bone meal, fish meal and rock phosphates.
- Potassium (K) deficiencies may present as yellowing of the leaves which start at the margins and move towards the center. Lower leaves may appear mottled and brown at their tips. To add potassium, consider langbeinite, wood ash and rock potash.
- Calcium (Ca) deficiencies may present as withered leaf margins and tips, or as young leaves with hooked tips. Either the terminal buds or the roots may be dying or dead.
- Magnesium (Mg) deficiencies may present as mottled yellowing between veins of older leaves while veins remain green. Yellow areas may turn brown and die. Yellowing may also occur on older leaves. Leaves may turn reddish purple due to low P metabolism, and decreased seed production often occurs. Deficiencies most likely on leached sandy soils and where high levels of N and K have been applied.
- Turf: Green or yellow-green stripes, changing to cherry red. Older leaves affected first. Increased winter injury.
- Broadleaf: Leaves are thin, brittle, and drop early. Older leaves may show interveinal and marginal chlorosis, reddening of older leaves, with interveinal necrosis late in the season followed by shedding of leaves. Shoot growth is not reduced until deficiency is severe. Fruit yield is reduced in severe deficiencies; apples may drop prematurely.
- Conifer: Needle tips are orange-yellow and sometimes red. Primary needles remain blue-green in young seedlings, but in older plants, older needles and the lower crown show symptoms first. In affected needles, the transition to green may be sharp.
- Sulphur (S) deficiencies may present as pale green leaves with dead spots. The veins may appear lighter than the rest of the leaf.
- Boron (B) deficiencies may present as brittle stems and petioles, with the bases of younger leaves breaking.
- Chlorine (Cl) deficiencies may present as spots of yellow/bronze or dead leaves with mostly green veins. This is rare if using tap water on plants.
- Copper (Cu) deficiencies may present as new leaves beginning to cup and with chlorosis between the veins. If it’s a serious deficiency, small spots of the leaves will die off and they may wilt and fall off. Leaf nodes will start growing closer and closer together, creating a squat look to your plant.
- Iron (Fe) deficiencies may present as chlorosis – yellowed leaves yet the veins remain green. To add iron to your soil, consider seaweed.
- Manganese (Mn) deficiencies may present as many dead spots scattered across the surface of young leaves, whilst the veins remain green. To add manganese to your soil, consider seaweed.
- Molybdenum (Mo) deficiencies may present as plants becoming stunted, with symptoms similar to those of nitrogen deficiency. At the same time, the edges of the leaves may become scorched by the accumulation of unused nitrates.
- Zinc (Zn) deficiencies may present as chlorosis that usually affects the base of the leaf near the stem. Chlorosis appears on the lower leaves first, and then gradually moves up the plant. The main difference is that chlorosis due to zinc deficiency begins on the lower leaves, while chlorosis due to a shortage of iron, manganese or molybdenum begins on the upper leaves.
- The only way to confirm your suspicion of a zinc deficiency is to have your soil tested. Your cooperative extension agent can tell you how to collect a soil sample and where to send it for testing.
Now that you’re aware of the nutrients and pH balance of soil, can you think of any of your plants that might need some amending? Let me know in the comments below! Thanks for your time. ❤