Soil is everywhere, and we can take the importance of soil for granted at times. It filters our rainwater, it anchors our trees shrubs, flowers, and lawns in place. It allows all plants to grow and thrive in order to produce clean air for us to breathe. We walk, run, play, and garden in soil, but do we understand what healthy soil is and how it works? Let us take a moment to understand how soil cycles, and what this cycling does for soil and trees' health. In a natural setting, the soil would be getting more complex and healthy overtime from the food it is receiving. That's right I said food! Your soil is very much alive and hungry, your soil is teaming with life that is microscopic. This microbial life is what makes your soil work and function to produce nutrients that are available to trees and shrubs. A simple cup of healthy soil will contain billions of bacteria, fungi, and other predator microbes like anthropods, amoebae, nematodes, and protozoa. The bacteria and fungi will help break down organic matter. So what is organic matter? When it relates to trees it is a forest floor or litter layer. When walking through a forest you will see all the leaves, twigs, berries, and fallen trees on the ground slowly decomposing. Just like compost. This layer of organic matter will be broken down by the fungi and bacteria in the soil. This organic matter is the food for the soil. The more diverse and abundant the organic matter is the more diverse and healthy the soil can become. This is called symbiosis, a relationship that is mutually beneficial to the soil and the plants that grow in the soil. The next step is the preditors in the soil, anthropods, amoebae, nematodes, and protozoa to eat the bacteria and fungi. This will produce waste or scat in plant-available forms for the trees and shrubs to enjoy. This entire process of organic matter, bring decomposed into plant-available forms is called a nutrient cycle and utilizes the soil food web. So why don't we have healthy soil in urban settings? The simple fact is that we have removed the soil food web from our urban setting by taking away all the organic matter or forest floor. This is because we have been taught that a beautiful landscape should have a lawn. You cannot grow grass with leaves, twigs, and fallen trees lying around so we clean up all organic matter and shuffle it to the curb or through a wood chipper. Over time the soil becomes hungry and lacks the ability to make plant-available nutrients. So we fertilize to provide simple nutrients that are required to keep trees and shrubs growing. Something that is created in nature for free and in a whole and natural form. Fertilizers can be of great help but we still need to have soil that can cycle to create poor space and retain water for uptake. Unhealthy or dead soil will become compacted and the water will run off instead of absorbing or penetrate the soil. We can assist in tree growth with fertilizer but never completely replace what healthy soil provides our gardens and trees.
So what do we do when we want to fix or amend our soil? The very first step is to test the soil and see what the biology ( microbial life ) is missing and do a chemistry test to see what can be replenished. Soil tests can provide great insight into the issues above the ground. Trees need healthy food just like you and I do to thrive and remain healthy. Fixing the soil can be more complex and will take some time to get back to a healthy state. We can add compost tea, we can top dress with specific blends of compost. We can drill holes throughout the landscape and add healthy compost. Verticle trenching is another great way to remove old tired soil and replace it with compost and organic matter. A very simple and effective way to start improving your soil health is to add some organic matter, like compost, leaf litter, or other organic foods like beet juice, molasses, or fish fertilizers. Mulching your trees is always a great start as well. A simple tree ring around the base of your tree no more than 4 inches in depth can be added and extended in size. A great way to cut down on lawn space is to add a perennial garden, this garden will bring you joy and beauty all season long and allow you to add lots of organic matter in the spring or fall before thing pop out of the ground or after they have gone dormant.
We love soil at Shady Lane Tree care and have a large variety of solutions to fit any property, call or email today to have one of our ISA certified arborists assess your soil and make a plan for you.