How to Improve the Quality of Your Soil

Soil is important, whether you’re growing prize winning roses, landscape shrubs or your own fruit trees. All need to be in the right type of soil to get the nutrient they need. Even beginners can improve the quality of the soil in the garden. All you need to do is follow these simple steps:

  1. Add Compost

Compost is not just for preparing the beds in the spring. Compost can be placed into your raised beds in the fall and improve their conditions over the winter. Because they will be sitting over the beds all winter, this doesn’t even have to be completely broken down compost either. A lot of the process will happen right there on the bed.

compost-organic-waste-farming

The concept of safe food using organic waste generated compost is picking up in South Asia

You can even use this method as a practical way of getting rid of all the waste you pick up from your garden in the fall. Just spread this over the bed and cover with mulch. The mulch protects the soil and the nutrients in the compost.

  1. Use Soil Amendments

Different soil amendments can be added to your soil to make it more suitable to your purposes. Choosing which soil amendment to use with your sol will be a matter of matching the proper solution to the problem you are facing. For example, there are amendment for increasing the nutritional content of your soil and others for improving the soil’s texture also known as tilth. For example, if your notice that the water is draining away too fast, you can add an amendment that allows you to soak up the moisture and the reverse is also true.

You can adjust the conditions of the soil to your exact needs with the right soil amendment. This could be compost or other rich matter that absorbs moisture or an amendment like greensand that allows water to drain away more easily.

Here are some common soil amendments that you can consider using for your garden as needed:

  • vermiculite (worm castings)
  • compost
  • greensand (or green sand)
  • grass clippings
  • cornmeal
  • alfalfa meal
  • straw
  • kelp meal
  1. Plant a Cover Crop

When you are thinking about improving soil quality, don’t forget the power of cover crops. This is not just an idea for large scale agricultural weed suppression. They are also a major benefit for backyard gardeners as well.

Cover crops are especially good for treating the soil as they provide oxygenation and improved nutrient availability. Alfalfa with its very deep root system pulls nutrients upwards from the lower levels of soil and make these more available in planting season. Then a couple weeks before you begin planting, this cover crop will be tilled back into the soil, increasing its organic composition and nutrient content.

This can also be used to improve the levels of nitrogen in the soil when using legumes as a cover crop. Fava beans, crimson clover and alfalfa are all good examples of nitrogen high crop covers. If you will not be growing anything particular over the growing season, you may consider a cover crop that protect and aerate your beds. (Pro tip: cherry trees are a great choice for the beginner backyard orchardist and benefit greatly from good soil).

  1. Try Lasagna Gardening

Also called sheet composting or “No-Till” gardening is another good way to improve your gardens soil quality and a perfect way to begin your raised beds and continue them. As you notice the quality levels of soil in your bed begin dropping down, you will keep adding new layers like lasagna which begins improving the quality of your soil from the top to the bottom. After the end of each growing season new layers are added.

For more information about your garden and the process of sheet composting, check out this article on the lasagna gardening method beginner’s guide. But there is one thing you will need to consider when using the lasagna method of composting. If you will be renovating your raised beds with the sheet composting method, you will need to wait a full 6-months before planting as you will need them to fully break down.

So this method will be best suited to those garden working with rotating beds or those gardeners who only plant one season. The following link included here will give some pointers on how this can be changed about and planting can be done sooner. Basically, if you would like to begin planting sooner, you will need to spread out a layer of compost and or healthy topsoil –– roughly 2 or 3 inches thick. You can then begin planting directly through this top layer.

  1. Prepare Raised Beds for the Winter

Never forget the importance of using the end of the year garden season is your opportunity to improve the quality of your soil in a number of ways. This end of the year ritual is like “closing down the shop” till spring. But, if you live in a warmer area of the country this might not even be necessary.

Here are some things to do. First, cut the plants as opposed to pulling them from the soil. Cutting the plant will allow the roots to rot away and this will make your soil lighter and airy. Then you can spread some compost out on the soil and cover this with a layer of mulch, the compost will be feeding nutrients back to the soil while the mulch will protect the soil and keep the nutrients bound in.

You can also just plant a cover crop and call it a year. Be sure to check out our article on winter gardening for some more things to do in the cold months.

Applications of Biochar

Biochar is a carbon-rich, fine-grained residue which can be produced either by ancient techniques (such as covering burning biomass with soil and allowing it to smoulder) or state-of-the-art modern biomass pyrolysis processes. Combustion and decomposition of woody biomass and agricultural residues results in the emission of a large amount of carbon dioxide. Biochar can store this CO2 in the soil leading to reduction in GHGs emission and enhancement of soil fertility. Biochar holds the promise to tackle chronic human development issues like hunger and food insecurity, low agricultural productivity and soil depletion, deforestation and biodiversity loss, energy poverty, water pollution, air pollution and climate change. Let us have a close look at some of the most promising applications of biochar.

 

Use of biochar in animal farming

At present approx. 90% of the biochar used in Europe goes into animal farming. Different to its application to fields, a farmer will notice its effects within a few days. Whether used in feeding, litter or in slurry treatment, a farmer will quickly notice less smell. Used as a feed supplement, the incidence of diarrhoea rapidly decreases, feed intake is improved, allergies disappear, and the animals become calmer.

In Germany, researchers conducted a controlled experiment in a dairy that was experiencing a number of common health problems: reduced performance, movement disorder, fertility disorders, inflammation of the urinary bladder, viscous salivas, and diarrhoea. Animals were fed different combinations of charcoal, sauerkraut juice or humic acids over periods of 4 to 6 weeks.

Experimenters found that oral application of charcoal (from 200 to 400 g/day), sauerkraut juice and humic acids influenced the antibody levels to C. botulinum, indicating reduced gastrointestinal neurotoxin burden. They found that when the feed supplements were ended, antibody levels increased, indicating that regular feeding of charcoal and other supplements had a tonic effect on cow health.

Biochar as soil conditioner

In certain poor soils (mainly in the tropics), positive effects on soil fertility were seen when applying untreated biochar. These include the higher capacity of the soil to store water, aeration of the soil and the release of nutrients through raising the soil’s pH-value. In temperate climates, soils tend to have humus content of over 1.5%, meaning that such effects only play a secondary role.

Indeed, fresh biochar may adsorb nutrients in the soil, causing at least in the short and medium term – a negative effect on plant growth. These are the reasons why in temperate climates biochar should only be used when first loaded with nutrients and when the char surfaces have been activated through microbial oxidation.

The best method of loading nutrients is to co-compost the char. This involves adding 10–30% biochar (by volume) to the biomass to be composted. Co-composting improves both the biochar and the compost. The resulting compost can be used as a highly efficient substitute for peat in potting soil, greenhouses, nurseries and other special cultures.

Because biochar serves as a carrier for plant nutrients, it can produce organic carbon-based fertilizers by mixing biochar with such organic waste as wool, molasses, ash, slurry and pomace. These are at least as efficient as conventional fertilizers, and have the advantage of not having the well-known adverse effects on the ecosystem. Such fertilizers prevent the leaching of nutrients, a negative aspect of conventional fertilizers. The nutrients are available as and when the plants need them. Through the stimulation of microbial symbiosis, the plant takes up the nutrients stored in the porous carbon structure and on its surfaces.
A range of organic chemicals are produced during pyrolysis. Some of these remain stuck to the pores and surfaces of the biochar and may have a role in stimulating a plant’s internal immune system, thereby increasing its resistance to pathogens. The effect on plant defence mechanisms was mainly observed when using low temperature biochars (pyrolysed at 350° to 450°C). This potential use is, however, only just now being developed and still requires a lot of research effort.

Biochar as construction material

The two interesting properties of biochar are its extremely low thermal conductivity and its ability to absorb water up to 6 times its weight. These properties mean that biochar is just the right material for insulating buildings and regulating humidity. In combination with clay, but also with lime and cement mortar, biochar can be added to clay at a ratio of up to 50% and replace sand in lime and cement mortars. This creates indoor plasters with excellent insulation and breathing properties, able to maintain humidity levels in a room at 45–70% in both summer and winter. This in turn prevents not just dry air, which can lead to respiratory disorders and allergies, but also dampness and air condensing on the walls, which can lead to mould developing.

As per study by the Ithaka Institute’s biochar-plaster wine cellar and seminar rooms in the Ithaka Journal. Such biochar-mud plaster adsorbs smells and toxins, a property not just benefiting smokers. Biochar-mud plasters can improve working conditions in libraries, schools, warehouses, factories and agricultural buildings.

Biochar is an efficient adsorber of electromagnetic radiation, meaning that biochar-mud plaster can prevent “electrosmog”. Biochar can also be applied to the outside walls of a building by jet-spray technique mixing it with lime. Applied at thicknesses of up to 20 cm, it is a substitute for Styrofoam insulation. Houses insulated this way become carbon sinks, while at the same time having a more healthy indoor climate. Should such a house be demolished at a later date, the biochar-mud or biochar-lime plaster can be recycled as a valuable compost additive.

Biochar as decontaminant

As a soil additive for soil remediation – for use in particular on former mine-works, military bases and landfill sites.

Soil substrates – Highly adsorbing and effective for plantation soil substrates for use in cleaning wastewater; in particular urban wastewater contaminated by heavy metals.

A barrier preventing pesticides getting into surface water – berms around fields and ponds can be equipped with 30-50 cm deep barriers made of bio-char for filtering out pesticides.

Treating pond and lake water – bio-char is good for adsorbing pesticides and fertilizers, as well as for improving water aeration.

Use of biochar in wastewater treatment – Our Project

The biochar grounded to a particle size of less than 1.5 mm and surface area of 600 – 1000 m2/g. The figure below is the basic representation of production of bio-char for wastewater treatment.

We conducted a study for municipal wastewater which was obtained from a local municipal treatment plant. The municipal wastewater was tested for its physicochemical parameters including pH, chemical oxygen demand (COD), total suspended solids (TSS), total phosphates (TP) and total Kjeldahl nitrogen (TKN) using the APHA (2005) standard methods.

Bio filtration of the municipal wastewater with biochar acting as the bio adsorbent was allowed to take place over a 5 day period noting the changes in the wastewater parameters. The municipal wastewater and the treated effluent physicochemical.

The COD concentration in the municipal wastewater decreased by 90% upon treatment with bio-char. The decrease in the COD was attributed to the enhanced removal of bio contaminants as they were passed through the bio char due to the bio char’s adsorption properties as well as the high surface area of the bio char. An 89% reduction in the TSS was observed as the bio filtration process with bio char increased from one day to five days

The TKN concentration in the wastewater decreased by 64% upon treatment with bio char as a bio filter. The TP in the wastewater decreased by 78% as the bio filtration time with bio char increase. The wastewater pH changed from being alkaline to neutral during the treatment with bio char over the 5 day period

Use in Textiles

In Japan and China bamboo-based bio-chars are already being woven into textiles to gain better thermal and breathing properties and to reduce the development of odours through sweat. The same aim is pursued through the inclusion of bio-char in shoe soles and socks.

Different Strategies in Composting

Composting can be categorized into different categories depending on the nature of decomposition process. The three major segments of composting are anaerobic composting, aerobic composting, and vermicomposting. In anaerobic composting, the organic matter is decomposed in the absence of air. Organic matter may be collected in pits and covered with a thick layer of soil and left undisturbed six to eight months. Anaerobic microorganisms dominate and develop intermediate compounds including methane, organic acids, hydrogen sulphide and other substances. The process is low-temperature, slow and the compost formed may not be completely converted and may include aggregated masses and phytotoxic compounds.

Aerobic Composting

Aerobic composting is the process by which organic wastes are converted into compost or manure in presence of air. In this process, aerobic microorganisms break down organic matter and produce carbon dioxide, ammonia, water, heat and humus, the relatively stable organic end-product. Although aerobic composting may produce intermediate compounds such as organic acids, aerobic microorganisms decompose them further. The resultant compost, with its relatively unstable form of organic matter, has little risk of phytotoxicity. The heat generated accelerates the breakdown of proteins, fats and complex carbohydrates such as cellulose and hemicellulose. Hence, the processing time is shorter. Moreover, this process destroys many micro-organisms that are human or plant pathogens, as well as weed seeds, provided it undergoes sufficiently high temperature. Although more nutrients are lost from the materials by aerobic composting, it is considered more efficient and useful than anaerobic composting for agricultural production.

There are a variety of methods for aerobic composting, the most common being the Heap Method, where organic matter needs to be divided into three different types and to be placed in a heap one over the other, covered by a thin layer of soil or dry leaves. This heap needs to be mixed every week, and it takes about three weeks for conversion to take place. The process is same in the Pit Method, but carried out in specially constructed pits. Mixing has to be done every 15 days, and there is no fixed time in which the compost may be ready. Berkley Method uses a labor-intensive technique and has precise requirements of the material to be composted. Easily biodegradable materials, such as grass, vegetable matter, etc., are mixed with animal matter in the ratio of 2:1. Compost is usually ready in 15 days.

Vermicomposting

Vermicomposting is a type of composting in which certain species of earthworms are used to enhance the process of organic waste conversion and produce a better end-product. It is a mesophilic process utilizing microorganisms and earthworms. Earthworms feeds the organic waste materials and passes it through their digestive system and gives out in a granular form (cocoons) which is known as vermicompost. Earthworms consume organic wastes and reduce the volume by 40–60 percent. Each earthworm weighs about 0.5 to 0.6 gram, eats waste equivalent to its body weight and produces cast equivalent to about 50 percent of the waste it consumes in a day. The moisture content of castings ranges between 32 and 66 percent and the pH is around 7.

The level of nutrients in compost depends upon the source of the raw material and the species of earthworm. Apart from other nutrients, a fine worm cast is rich in NPK which are in readily available form and are released within a month of application. Vermicompost enhances plant growth, suppresses disease in plants, increases porosity and microbial activity in soil, and improves water retention and aeration.

Sustainable Agriculture with Liquid Organic Fertilizers

Agricultural practices are increasingly leaning towards committing to a sustainable environment. In light of this, organic farming has become acceptable to many farmers. Many are practicing environmental- friendly practices such as using organic liquid fertilizer instead of the synthetic alternative.

The misuse and abuse of synthetic fertilizers is responsible for many of the health problems that humans experience today. It has also contributed to a large extent to the deterioration of the environment.

Organic agriculture has experienced fast growth globally. Organic systems involve the natural management of soil through the following practices:

  • Composts
  • Animal manure
  • Mowed or tilled over crops
  • Application of soil-organic matter

These nourish the soil by steadily releasing nutrients to the crops as the organic matter that has been added to the soil breaks down. The chemical and physical properties of the soil are improved by the exogenous organic matter applied to the soil. This also improves the biological functions of the soil which results in a healthy and wholesome crop free of dangerous disease causing chemicals.

Why Organic Liquid Fertilizer is Sustainable

Organic fertilizer is derived from naturally existing products such as plants and animal manure. This makes it a sustainable product. Waste from animals such as cows, rabbits, fish and chicken is used to make organic fertilizer that provides much-needed nutrition to plants and soil as well.

Naturally occurring vegetation and waste will always be available as it renews itself. Besides, plants can be reused to make fertilizer for the next batch once harvesting is done. Since organic farming takes care of the environment, it is safe to say that vegetation is safe for the long run. Organic fertilizer is also made from human waste such as urine and that is definitely sustainable.

Organic gardeners love to have a bottle of organic fish fertilizer on hand for feed young seedlings. This fertilizer also works well on plants in containers and any crop that may be suffering from ‘malnutrition’.

Why and When to Use Liquid Fertilizers

Seeing as liquid manures act faster than solid organic ones, they are the best option in the following circumstance:

  • For seedlings that have exhausted the nutrients provided by newly sprouted seed. It is especially crucial if the fertilizer you are using is a soil-free seed starting mix. While it helps in damping off, it fails to provide adequate nutrients.
  • When seedlings show signs of not having had enough nutrients. If the color fails to darken after a fertilizer has been added, it is an indication that they have not had a fair share of nutrients.
  • If you have container-grown plants, liquid fertilizers are what your plants yearn for. Container-grown plants depend entirely on the grower for nutrients and moisture. They need to be fed frequently with an organic liquid fertilizer in order to thrive.
  • When you are growing cold-tolerant crops which begin their journey of growth in low soil temperatures. Liquid fertilizers are great for boosting nutrients for such plants since it is difficult to absorb nutrients such as nitrogen in wintry temperatures.

Organic liquid fertilizers are short-acting. Consequently, they are easier to regulate that dry organic ones which are longer-acting. The ease with which liquid fertilizers can be used makes them quite popular and therefore sustainable.

Important Tip

Do not mix too much nitrogen-rich fertilizer into the soil. This is not reversible. The release of nitrogen into the soil increases as the temperature rises. You may consequently end up with huge plants but no production. The best time to apply a short-acting fertilizer is just when it is needed by the crop. Then you have less chances of overdoing the application.

When your plants are well into the season, you can feed them an organic liquid fertilizer to rejuvenate crops such as tomatoes which live long in the ground. Tomatoes are known to awaken with gusto once you give them two feeds of a good organic liquid fertilizer.