It Isn’t Dirt…

It is a seemingly harmless interposition of terms, but it carries a weighty implication. Never ask a gardener how their dirt is. Healthy soil is arguably worth its weight in gold. Perhaps the most crucial component of vigorous gardens and vibrant ecosystems, this oft under-appreciated substrate is responsible for anchoring, nourishing, hydrating and allowing atmospheric gasses to enter and leave the plant. It follows that establishing or supporting a healthy garden starts with sound soil management.

Here in the North Valley, the land is often high in Magnesium, a byproduct of decomposing mineral serpentine in the surrounding foothills. Though it is an essential micronutrient for plants, large quantities of this element can actually have a toxic effect. Where it is prevalent in the soil, the chemical receptors in the root tissue of plants will indiscriminately collect high concentrations of Magnesium instead of the reactively similar Calcium ions, which are a macronutrient in much greater demand. In proportion to plant needs, Calcium levels in native soils are much lower than those of Magnesium. While traditional horticultural wisdom would recommend applications of Agricultural Lime—Calcium Carbonate—in such instances, this will raise the pH, or make the soil more alkaline. All nutrients are available to the plant within a finite pH range, and as our flatland soils tend toward alkalinity anyway, this approach can create new problems.

Alternately, we suggest intensive applications of Gypsum, or Calcium Sulfate. By elevating Calcium levels in the soil, plants have ready access to the nutrient and are less likely to accumulate Magnesium instead, leading directly to increased vegetative health. Fruit quality issues, such as end rot in tomatoes, are often symptomatic of Calcium deficiencies and will be markedly reduced or eliminated come harvest time. Additionally, Sulfate has a mild acidifying effect, helping to maintain a lower pH—one more conducive to absorption of other nutrients.

Buffering of pH allows the soil itself to feel the real benefits of Calcium addition—deflocculation—without the detrimental effects on plants that Lime would produce. Deflocculation simply means that the Calcium ions break up the very dense, clumping soil structure indicative of clay content, allowing increased aeration, drainage, and leaching salts out of the soil. Or, as our Sof’n-Soil© bags read, Gypsum “works like millions of tiny hoes.” So if your garden gnomes just can’t seem to get it together, here’s a low-cost solution that is good for the gardener and the earth. Come in soon, and get a jump start on building rich, loose soil for a fantastic year in the yard!

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