All through this site and just about any site that deals with Permaculture
, Agriculture or Gardening
has soil testing mentioned almost everywhere soil or plants are talked about.
Question is, If we are building the living soil, how much good are those soil test results for our needs?
There are some things we have to come to the realization of before we can give a good answer
to that question.
1. Soil testing is a Chemical Analysis of Dirt not soil.
2. Results will be based on Chemical Farming Methodology otherwise known as "Modern Farming Methods" where use of harsh, chemical based, artificial fertilizers and amendments are the norm.
3. Since the Soil Science came out of Modern Farming Methodology, it does not take into account that soil is a living organism made of all the different microorganisms that call soil home.
4. Some of the recommended amendments will do far more harm than good to soil, including acidification, salinization and death of the microbiota.
5. The only minerals soil testing can show are those that are water
soluble, if the plant roots
can't immediately take it in, it is considered non existent by the chemist.
So, now we have to pose the question, How do we take the results of the soil test and improve Soil, since the test is for Dirt?
This is where a lot of people
, who are indeed trying to build soil, but don't realize that they tested their soil under the premise that it was dirt, run into big trouble under the surface of their soil.
They get a soil test and they find out what water soluble minerals are present and they get a quantitative number for each of those minerals, along with a recommendation of how much of that mineral is considered optimal.
They also get a pH number for their Dirt, showing how basic or how acidic the Dirt is currently and they are given a recommendation of what to use to get that pH to 6.8 (the "standard").
These results are, by most people, considered as Gospel (The Word).
Now these well meaning folks go to the garden
center and purchase the recommended amendments in the recommended quantities and apply them to their dirt.
Problems arise because as it turns out, the well meaning gardener had soil, not dirt but now they have gone to the dark side and taken their soil and turned it into dirt by applying the wrong amendments.
Wait just a dang minute you say! They got their soil test from a great laboratory and those guys know their stuff! what do you mean they killed their soil?!!!
(Isn't that what you were thinking? if I didn't know better by having been one of those "soil scientist" I would be thinking that)
Here's The Thing.
Soil Science is all about growing plants (living things) in a dead medium (Dirt), this is because mankind has always turned over the soil and broken the structure of that soil into tiny particles so they could plant their seeds.
Microorganisms die when they get sunburned, turning the soil over exposes those super important microbes to the UV rays from the sun and they get sunburned (die).
Now we have dead soil, nothing is there to make minerals available to those plants we put into the dirt so they die from malnutrition and dehydration.
We cry to science "we prepared the soil and planted our crops and the plants died, help"
Science looks at the fields of dead plants and does some testing and science comes up with "the answers" (actually it is what the gardener/farmer wants to hear, that they can grow plants in dirt instead of needing soil to grow plants in)
Science then develops a complete set of data from testing both dirt and plants and comes up with the basic nutrients plants have to have in order to grow and produce a crop.
Presto Chango ! Soil Science is born of necessity of the needs of the gardener/farmer.
Science however, needed money to do all those tests and develop a how to fix this plan.
Enter the Agricultural Chemical Corporations who were happy to provide the money science needed for this project
, on the stipulation that they would get first dibs on the information derived from the testing.
We all know where and how that alliance ended up.
So what in the heck is a Permie
Since the late 1800's gardener/farmer types have been told that they need to test their soil and that from that soil test they will be told what to use and how to use it so they can fix their soil. (actually dirt, remember?)
The Permie follows what he knows to be true and takes proper samples, packages them up and sends or takes them to a soil laboratory then waits for the results to be sent to him/her.
Here is where the "Permaculture Conundrum" can rear it's ugly head and wreak havoc on the well meaning Permie's land
Let me break this huge problem down into steps, it should
be easier to grasp that way.
1. Test results tell me the pH adjustment material is Lime, to be spread at a rate of 40 lbs. per acre
Issue: Within 24 hours, the soil I limed has seen pH rise from a low pH 4 to an optimum of pH 7. Such a huge increase in the ion count (100,000 ppm to 100,000,000 ppm) is very stressful to plants. Plants can become sick with the shock of this rate of change.
So, we fixed the problem, but we stressed every plant type, except those we really didn't want to grow anyway (grasses and "weeds" are less affected by such a "sugar rush" than all the vegetables, berries, nuts, fruits).
The result of our quick fix is very similar to the Brain Freeze humans get from eating frozen stuff to fast.
We know that only certain plants (notably blueberries and the similar fruiting bushes) like to grow in acidic soils (they do have their limits as to how acidic their soil can be)
Plus there is the detrimental side effect of aluminum being released into acidic soils to be taken in by the plants we want to grow big and strong.
What's the harm in that? Aluminum in higher quantities has been found to be one of the underlying causes of Alzheimer’s disease and it is linked to Repetitive Strain Injuries.
So we really need to inject the ions via an application of Lime to raise those acidic soils to a better pH for our plants. Right?
Fear not my fellow Permies, there is a better way that will not do harm to our precious food plants, nor will it turn the soil microbiome topsy turvy.
For a slow release solution we can turn to Rock Dusts and Gypsum, these will raise a low pH over a period of 87 days a much gentler pH rise that doesn't stress plants.
But I need to get the pH adjusted faster you say.
Then use the Lime but do that at least 48 hours before you start planting, that way the acidity is handled already and those root
systems or seeds won't feel like you just injected them with Heroin.
Or, you could use a two step adjustment by using just a little lime and a lot of rock dust or gypsum.
2. What is described in #1 follows for almost all of the recommended adjustments of a soil test analysis.
Soil science gives the "quick fix", otherwise known as the short term solution, they will never give a long term solution, the companies that fund them are not in the long term solution business, they want your money every year.
It is up to those who are most concerned about growing High quality, nutrient dense foods, to look for those amendments that work over long periods and don't cause any sudden gluts of nutrients or slam dunk pH changes.
We also must always be aware that, while soil tests provide us with an overview of our soil, they only give us a small window peek of what our soil is like.
Since soil tests only find water soluble minerals/ nutrients, we have to know that these are just a small portion of those items that are actually in our soil, so we are not getting a complete or even half complete picture of our soil from these test results.
Next time I'll talk about which of our microorganisms do what for our plants along with why we don't ever want to use artificial fertilizers.
Link to List of Bryant RedHawk's Epic Soil Series Threads