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Home > Resource Conservation > Soil > 5 Things All Plants Need To Be Healthy

Resource Conservation: Soil: 5 Things All Plants Need To Be Healthy.

soil pics.
Many people make this (growing plants) more complicated than it is. These few basic principles are all you need to get started.

 

Overview:

People complicate things, nature does not. There, we said it. So, when growing plants, people must know when they are needed and when it is time to get out of the way.
     There are 5 things all plants need to thrive and they are mostly free. People who tell you differently are usually trying to sell something.
The 5 Things are:
  • (Sun)Light
  • Air
  • Water
  • Dirt
  • Healthy Soil Food Web

(Sun)Light:

Plants make sugars through something called photosynthesis. The "photo" part of that word means that light (usually from the sun) is required to make these sugars.
     The plant uses these sugars to create structure and feed itself.
The plant also sends sugars (about one third of what it makes) down the roots to feed the soil food web. The web in turn feeds the plant with nutrients the plant needs.
     But it all starts with the plant harnessing the energy of the sun.

Air:

Air is basically the gasses we breathe daily. Air is more than 70% Nitrogen, more than 20% Oxygen and some water vapor. In 2015, air averaged 400 ppm CO2. Other things in air include SOx, NOx and traces of other stuff.
     Above Ground: A plant absorbs CO2 from the air in the process of photosynthesis and releases Oxygen into the air. The plant is also a structure that takes water vapor out of the air and puts it into the soil. Many plants also take Nitrogen out of the air and store it in their roots and other areas of the plant.
Below Ground (in the soil): The soil contains the soil food web. The healthiest soil food web is aerobic (Oxygen rich) and supplies air to microbes, nematodes, insects and worms. Unhealthy soil may be anaerobic (without air) which can suffocate these desirable organisms.
     The "airy" structure of the soil is built by plant roots, worm tunnels and many other ways by the members of the healthy soil food web. We (humans) do not need to do anything to build this structure.

Water:

Water is required by all life forms. A plant has several processes that require water. Water is needed for photosynthesis, for cellular respiration and to move nutrients, wastes and structures around in its body. A plant that is fully hydrated is very resistant to disease and attack by insects.
     Water is also needed by a healthy soil food web because it is a mixture of living organisms that all rely on water to live. Too much water, can rob the soil of needed air (Oxygen) creating anaerobic (unhealthy) soil.
As organisms in the soil food web die and/or eat each other they release water that is used by the plant. So, the soil food web is like a water reservoir for plant roots.

Dirt:

Dirt rocks! Literally. As rocks get broken up and eroded, they make silt, sand and clay. These are basically rocks ground up smaller and smaller. Dirt contains all the minerals needed to give the plants good nutrition.
     However, a plant can not generally break down the silt, sand and clay to get the minerals it needs.
Many of the members of the soil food web break down minerals in dirt for their own use. Then, they either exchange the minerals for sugars (root exudates) or give them up when they die.
     Minerals will exist in the soil as long as there is dirt in the soil (thousands of years).

Healthy Soil Food Web:

A soil food web is all the organic matter in the soil. This organic matter is made up of plant roots, fungus, bacteria, nematodes, worms, insects and so on, alive or dead. The dead organic material is food for the live soil food web. Likewise, much of the live part of the food web is also food for other members of the web.
     If there is not a healthy soil food web present already, plant roots are the key to generating it. The sugars the roots excrete are meant to attract bacteria and fungus to the root. Once attracted, they get fat off the sugar and release things the plant needs. Likewise, the bacteria and fungus attract things that eat bacteria and fungus. After a few iterations of bigger things eating smaller things, you have a food web.
     Eventually, the population of a soil food web grows to billions of organisms per teaspoon. During that process, populations of good and bad organisms rearrange themselves until there is a balance. What organisms usually win? That is easy, the ones that do not bite the hand that feeds them. And the hand that feeds them is the live root of a plant.
A healthy soil food web works toward balancing air and water optimally around a plant root. This balance keeps the plant healthy and feeds the soil food web. Imbalance can stress a plant, making it vulnerable to insects and disease.
     Another thing that helps build and keep a healthy soil food web is to have a live plant root in the soil as close to 365 days a year. If there is no live root in the soil, the soil food web will still exist but will eventually cannibalize itself. In general, the entire food web is fed with a plant root excreting sugars.
     Some people sell compost tea, compost extract and other things to help accelerate the creation of a healthy soil food web. This may be beneficial when beginning your garden, however, after a while, those amendments will not improve an already healthy soil food web.

What Should I Buy?

Nothing. It really is that simple.

Glossary of Terms:

Exudate: an excretion, usually sugars from a plant root. PPM: Parts Per Million.

References:

http://www.no-tillfarmer.com/ No-till farmer web site. Good general information. taken 9/5/2015.

http://www.soilfoodweb.com/, Dr. Elaine Ingham's web site on the soil food web. Taken 1/11/2016.