Building Healthy Soil for Healthy Trees, Shrubs, & Plants

We often take our soil for granted. It’s just there, beneath our feet or under our fingernails. But if you’ve not given much thought to the soil in your garden, you might want to start now. Healthy, nutrient-rich soil is more valuable than you might imagine, for both you and your plants and trees. Read on to learn more about your soil and how to make sure it’s healthy and alive. (Yes, soil is a living thing!)

Connecticut’s Soil

Soil is a product of its environment. In Connecticut, glaciers shaped our land and our soil.

  • Rocks and boulders were ground down, dragged, or dropped into place by moving glaciers.
  • Sand, silt, and clay particles were spread by the forces of eroding wind and rushing water.
  • Successive, accumulated generations of decayed plants added organic matter, which bonded to the mineral particles.

Sand, silt, and clay are the mineral components that make up soil, and form its texture. Soil texture is determined by the “texture triangle” (check out the USDA’s soil survey web page for details).

If you live in a typical urban or suburban area, chances are your soil may be a mix of good and bad ingredients. Most soils in built-up areas lack the full range of nutrients found in undisturbed forest soil, and construction grading means subsoil is frequently present where only topsoil should be. Soil compaction compounds the low nutrient levels, affecting water absorption and root system development.

Throughout much of the (sub)urban areas of Connecticut, trees and plants need supplemental fertilizer for healthy growth. In particular, fertilizing with compost and organic mulch can improve your soil over the long term. Fertilizing soil can’t change its texture but some types of fertilization can improve its structure, which then improves growing conditions for plants and trees.
Soil around new plants in Connecticut planted by Rayzor's Edge Tree Service

Healthy Soil Is Full of Life

While we may call it dirt when it’s on our shoes or clothes, soil is a complex, living thing. In addition to sand, silt, clay, and organic matter, healthy soil is full of beneficial microorganisms such as species of fungi, bacteria, and nematodes. These tiny organisms:

  • Boost plant growth
  • Keep soil nutrients available for tree roots to take up
  • Improve soil’s fertility by increased nitrogen fixing (converting nitrogen for plants to use)
  • Remove harmful soil pollutants

How to Improve Your Soil

The foundation of a healthy landscape is its soil, and the basis for healthy soil is its structure.

Good soil management includes practices that improve soil’s organic matter levels and enhance beneficial microbes. In contrast, some common landscape practices can damage soil.

Stop Doing This!

Soil-destroying practices to stop include:

  • Mowing and blowing over soil surfaces to dislodge and remove organic matter
  • Leaving soil surfaces bare to erode and compact from rainfall
  • Regularly tilling or cultivating
  • Applying synthetic fertilizers
  • Applying traditional pesticides and herbicides

Just because plenty of people do these things, it doesn’t make them beneficial! These practices reduce organic matter levels in soil, break down its natural texture, and kill the beneficial microbes that are teeming in healthy soil.

For example, while tilling has long been thought to break up soil and make it easier for plants to grow in it, we now know tilling is something to limit or avoid. In addition to damaging soil’s texture and breaking its peds, tilling releases stored carbon from the soil into the atmosphere.

Traditional pesticides and herbicides kill indiscriminately and will kill the microbes that are essential to healthy soil. Glyphosate, the widely used herbicide ingredient, has been shown to kill species of beneficial soil microbes.

Why Organic Matter Matters

The organic matter in the soil acts as a sort of glue that bonds clumps of soil (called “peds”) that are vital to maintaining a healthy soil texture. Organic matter also ensures that soil’s pore spaces are kept open for oxygen and water transmission. And importantly, organic matter increases soil’s ability to hold and keep water for roots to take up.
Trees surrounded by mulch

Good Practices for Good Soil

The best ways to improve and preserve your soil’s health are also among the easiest. Our old friends compost and mulch play prominent roles in long-term soil health:

Using Compost

Add a layer of fully-decayed compost atop bare soil. It will break down and bond to soil particles, improving long-term soil fertility and slowing water loss. Adding compost to soil also increases its atmospheric carbon-holding ability and improves the environment.

Using Mulch

Add a three-inch layer of organic mulch (organic meaning it is made from a once-living thing, like a tree) over compost-covered soil to:

  • slow the evaporation of water from soil,
  • lower surface soil temperatures to keep tree roots and soil microbes healthy, and
  • suppress weeds that compete for nutrients and water.

Maintain your mulch layer’s thickness by regularly replacing organic mulch as it breaks down into the soil.

In addition to these long-term soil improvement practices, targeted fertilization ensures vigorous growth and improved resistance to pests and diseases. Deep-root fertilization treatments can also improve your soil’s health if they include ingredients like chelated iron, living microbes, and humic acid.

We’re Here to Help

We’re as invested in the long-term health of your soil as you are, and we want your trees to be vigorous and long-lived. If you want to ensure that your soil is healthy and alive but don’t know where to start, give us a call. We’ll evaluate your property’s needs, analyze your soil, and provide a treatment plan that gives your soil exactly what it needs.

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