Often overlooked and underestimated, soil is paramount to a healthy and vibrant landscape. Soil is so much more than brown dirt; it’s teeming with vital nutrients and organisms that keep your grass green and gardens lush. Or should I say, healthy soil is all of the above, while dead soil is just dirt”“and therefore, requires a soil amendment. What does it mean to amend soil? Amendments are just as they sound; they amend or change the composition of the soil. So how do you know if your soil needs amendments? Here’s how:
Understanding Your Soil
There are key indicators that can help you better understand your soil without performing a CSI-style investigation:
- Soil Horizons: Take a trowel and dig a small hole in your garden. You should see different layers of varying brown colours. Soil is made up of horizons, or layers. Each of these layers tells the history of the soil and also gives you a pretty good idea of what it may be lacking.
- The top layer is organic matter, such as leaves, mulch, and decaying material.
- The next layer is topsoil. A very important layer as this is where plants’ roots and organisms mostly live. (This is the layer many home builders bring in when building new subdivisions; it often can be poor quality.)
- The next layer is usually the subsoil. This area contains a lot of the minerals and nutrients that have moved down from the upper layers of the soil.
We won’t go any further than these layers for the purposes of understanding your soil and the amendments it needs (Phew! Science class is over). You’ve dug the hole, you’ve looked at your soil layers”“now what? Let’s consider what you saw.
A Good Sign of Healthy Soil
It’s a good sign of healthy soil if your top layer of organic matter contains plenty of decaying leaves, mulch, dark matter, and other fibrous bits. Next, what did your topsoil look and feel like? Key indicators of healthy topsoil are: dark in colour, moist but not soaked or sticky, and a mixture of small rocks and fine particles. If you want to test the PH of your soil, it’s ideal to be between 5.5-7.5. We have PH test kits in-store if needed. The subsoil is next, but it is hard to amend or change without first focusing on your upper soil layers; let’s focus on the basics first.
Aside from the soil layers, another key indicator to understanding your soil and whether or not it requires an amendment is your trees, plants, and grass. Is your lawn lush and vibrant green, are your trees healthy and vigorous, and are your landscape shrubs and perennials vibrantly blooming and growing? No? It may be time for a soil amendment.
Fertilizers Can’t (Completely) Fix Your Soil
You’ve assessed your soil and surrounding landscape and determined that yes, in fact, your yard could use a soil amendment. Many people assume fertilizers are the solution, when in fact, they can help and are vital to fuel your landscape, but they are akin to a bandaid over a gaping wound. Fertilizers are a crucial addition to healthy, living soil, but if your soil is already dead (i.e. dirt), then fertilizers won’t fix the problem as they are transient and don’t stay in the soil long-term. If your landscape seems to rely on the addition of fertilizers every year, then it’s time to consider a soil amendment.
Main Soil Amendments
It’s time to make a change”“to your soil. There is no better solution that definitively fixes soil than amendments. Here’s a breakdown of the most common soil amendments and what they do:
- Organic matter: organic materials come in many forms, but they all augment your soil. Sea-soil, manure, compost, peat, and kelp/seaweed are some of the more common types of organic amendments that improve soil structure, texture, and key nutrients. If there is only one soil amendment you wish to perform, then adding organic material is the best return on investment as it improves so many soil characteristics.
- Sand, gravel, and gypsum: are ideal soil amendments that can be added to heavy, poorly-drained clay soils, improving both drainage and aeration.
- Lime and glacial rock dust: if you did get a soil PH test and discovered your soil is too acidic, then these amendments are ideal soil neutralizers.
- Vermiculite or Shredded Bark: if your soil inspection revealed a very sandy, grainy soil that doesn’t retain water well, then these help with water retention.
How to Apply a Soil Amendment
The application of a soil amendment can be simple when establishing new gardens and landscapes. Choose the correct amendment and then thoroughly mix it into your native soil. This can be done in various ways, with the most common being with a garden tiller, rake, or shovel. There is no steadfast rule on how much amendment to apply, so perhaps discuss your unique soil situation with our garden centre experts.
Now, as you can imagine, it becomes a bit more difficult when amending established landscapes”“ especially lawns. One of the most common methods to amend existing lawns is by a method called top-dressing. This involves complete aeration of the lawn with a mechanical aerator, followed by spreading a top-dressing layer of amendment consistently all over the lawn. It can be cumbersome, but this top-dressing will slowly leach down into your soil layers and improve soil quality over time.
In reality, unless we live surrounded by ancient, undisturbed old-growth forests, then our landscape soil likely needs some form of an amendment. Most of the soil surrounding our home and gardens lacks the key nutrients that build in soil layers over long periods of time. You see, soil is a natural living organism and has a way of fixing itself over time”“it’s us invasive humans who have disturbed that natural ecosystem. The fastest, most efficient way to get your soil back on track toward a long, healthy life is through soil amendments. Come talk to our landscape professionals to get started turning your dirt into healthy, living soil!