Understanding the land
September 25, 2003
By CHARLA BORCHERS
Victoria County Master Gardener
Aside from an avid passion for flowers and foliage of color in my landscaped yard, I became a certified Master Gardener to learn more about grasses and foliage not only on ranch land, but also in my own yard and landscape setting. Soil and water issues, as well as fertilizing practices, have also had a role in that picture. The "love of the land" information contained in this article is natural to me; the more scientific material has been learned from various Master Gardener sources.
Fourth generation in a
The importance of soil cannot be overemphasized when trying to maintain the land and healthy plants, whether it is at the ranch or in a landscape. As a physical anchor for plants, soil is the primary source of water and nutrients. A soil in good condition for plant growth contains approximately 50 percent solid material including minerals, organic matter and microorganisms, and 50 percent open or "pore" space for the coexistence of both air and water.
Soil structure, which defines how tightly or loosely the soil is held together, can dictate how well plants respond. Good soil structure allows favorable movement of air, water and plant roots while poor structure slows down such movement. Good soil structure is almost always promoted by working into the soil additional organic matter - something that can be done easily in landscapes.
"Cover" crops like ryegrass also can be planted in open garden areas to help reduce erosion and loss of topsoil. Mulching is a standard practice for vegetable gardens, flower and shrub beds, and around fruit and ornamental trees. Two to four inches of organic mulch added twice a year is recommended for most garden and landscape plants. The continuous and repeat addition of these practices can raise the soil nutrient level and enhance the physical structure to such a degree that the need for synthetic fertilizers is greatly reduced, or even eliminated.
Soil drainage and soil depths are other issues influencing plant productivity. The amount of moisture that drains into and off the soil as well as the depth of the topsoil and root penetration determine nutrient and water availability for plants in the soil.
Plants feed on 16 nutrients or elements for normal growth. Of these, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are considered major nutrients because plants require them in larger quantities for maximum growth. Calcium, magnesium and sulfur are the next level of nutrients needed by plants. Therefore, it is these that are to be observed more closely to maintain soil and plant health.
The soil pH level, or acidic and alkalinity level in the soil, also affects the quality of plant growth. Soils with a pH level of 7 are neutral, between the scale of extremely acid (0) and extremely alkaline (14). Soils with a pH of 6 to 7 are ideal for most plant growth, although some grow well slightly below 6 and some do well just above 7.
By learning the nutrient and pH levels in soil, fertilizers or other products that can correct deficiencies or abnormalities for increased plant productivity can be added. The type of fertilizer needed depends on nutrients needed, soil structure and chemistry and even the method of applying fertilizer, of which there are various kinds, applications, and timing periods for best results.
Why all of this textbook information on soil and its nutrients? It is just a "scoop" full of knowledge that can be obtained from a soil sample test that will supply you with enough information to make a wise choice with regard to applications of soil modifications and fertilizers. The results will recommend to you what kind of fertilizer, if any, to apply for healthy plants in your landscape or garden. A soil sample test performed every three to four years in your landscape provides a map of historical and future fertilizing practices and gives recommendations to correct problems.
Results of a recent, similar soil-testing campaign through
Texas Cooperative Extension in the city of
In addition to causing plant growth problems, high nitrogen and high phosphorous levels in the soil can also lead to groundwater contamination, which eventually affects streams, rivers, estuaries and bays. While essential nutrients for plant life, they are known pollutants when mismanaged and can cause an imbalance in ecosystems with plant and even animal death.
Let's see what soils in our part of
With some 168 million acres of land in
This knowledge also stems back from gardens and landscapes, suitable to the protection of natural habitats, to the ranch land that I, like others who are its stewards, hold so dear. I leave with you a quote from a member of my ranching family who says that all the deeds, leases and documents that we have on land really are not worth their paper: "We are only stewards of the land, put here on earth to return it, in time, in a better condition than the way we found it."