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An Examination of Accepted Soil Testing Proceedures and Results  RSS feed

 
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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 to do?

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.

Redhawk

Link to List of Bryant RedHawk's Epic Soil Series Threads



 
Bryant RedHawk
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There are an estimated 60,000 different bacteria species, most which have yet to be even named, and each has its own particular roles and capabilities.
Most of the soil dwelling bacteria live in the top 10cm of soil (where the organic matter is present).

Bacteria species such as Bacillus subtilis and Pseudomonas fluorescens serve as decomposers, digesting organic materials and breaking them down into soil and compost.
Decomposers take simple compounds like root and plant litter, converting these to forms that plants can use.
(Additions of these bacteria in experiments have not been found to accelerate formation of compost or humus in soil.)
Some decomposers can break down pesticides or herbicides, are very good at retaining nutrients within their cells, thus preventing essential nutrient losses in the soil.

Aerobic bacteria require oxygen to survive, and are most common in well drained soils where there is no standing water.
These bacteria make up the majority of the species found in most soils, and also play a vital role in nitrification.

Rhizobium bacteria serve as nitrogen fixers in many different plants, and are mutualists, forming a partnership with the plants they inhabit.
These bacteria turn ammonium into nitrates which are used by plants to build proteins.
Rhizobium bacteria can be inoculated onto legume seeds to fix nitrogen in the soil.
They live in special root nodules on legumes such as clover, beans, medic, wattles etc.
They extract nitrogen gas from the air and convert it into forms that plants can use.
This form of nitrogen fixation can add the equivalent of more than 100kg of nitrogen per hectare per year.

Azotobacter, Azospirillum, Agrobacterium, Gluconobacter, Flavobacterium and Herbaspirillum are all examples of free-living, nitrogen-fixing bacteria, often associated with non-legumes.
So far, inoculating soils with these organisms has not been found to be an effective means of increasing nitrogen fixation for non-legume crops.

Green-Blue algae is a form of bacteria, specifically cyanobacteria. These bacteria are photosynthetic and transform sunlight into energy and release oxygen as a byproduct.

Actinomycetes are decomposers that specialize in decomposing cellulose and chitin.
The Actinomycetes are a large, important group of bacteria, these are the guys that give freshly turned earth its recognizable "earthy" scent.
Another really cool thing about these guys is that they are active in high pH soils, and can produce antibiotics.

Bacteria have some peculiarities too.
Some species are very fragile and can be killed by slight changes in the soil environment.
Other species are extremely tough, able to withstand severe heat, cold or drying.
Some can lie dormant for decades waiting for favorable conditions.
Others can extract nitrogen directly from the air and/ or break down some toxic substances.
Populations of microbes can boom or bust in the space of a few days in response to changes in soil moisture, soil temperature or carbon substrate.
To gain advantage for daily life many microbes release antibiotic substances which suppress specific competitors, some species can suppress disease-causing microorganisms.

Bacillus megaterium is an example of using a bacterium on some crops to suppress the disease-causing fungus Rhizoctonia solani.
Pseudomonas fluorescens may also be useful against this disease.
And our friend Bacillus subtilis has been used to suppress seedling blight of sunflowers, caused by Alternaria helianthi.
A number of bacteria have been commercialized worldwide for disease suppression.
However, suppression is most often specific to particular diseases of particular crops and may only be effective in certain circumstances.

Aerobic bacteria are those that need oxygen, so where soil is well drained aerobes tend to dominate.
Anaerobes are bacteria that do not need oxygen and may find it toxic.
This group includes very ancient types of bacteria that live inside soil aggregates.(The first bacteria were probably anaerobic)
Anaerobic bacteria love wet, poorly drained soils.
They can produce toxic compounds that can limit root growth and predispose plants to root diseases.
Which is why we want to always aerate any ferment or other style of compost making that is anaerobic.

Actinobacteria prefer non-acidic soils (pH higher than 5.0).
These bacteria help to slowly break down humates and humic acids in soils.

Thiobacillus bacteria covert sulfides into sulfates, a form of sulfur which plants can use. (most soils contain sulfides but this form of sulfur is largely unavailable to plants)

Next time we will go over how to best add bacteria so they can survive and do their job(s) for us.

Redhawk

 
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Do you know of any soil testing labs that specialize in servicing organic, living soil style farming? I have heard that Hugh Lovel [sp?] out of Georgia has a company (quantum agriculture?) that tests soil and gives recomendations based on his understanding of building living soils for optimum plant growth. Locally there is a garden store that will ship your soil off to a big laboratory and then interpret the results through their system of growing living soils. But I'm curious if there is a lab that you know of that specializes in this.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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The Environment Celebration Institute
13193 Oroville Quincy Hwy
Berry Creek, CA 95916
Phone: 530-589-9947
Mobile: 707-225-5762
Email: elaine@environmentcelebration.com
Website: soilfoodweb@aol.com


Harrington's Organic Landcare Services
70 Highland Park Drive
Bloomfield, CT 06002
lab@harringtonsorganic.com
Office Phone: 860-243-8733 x 11
Fax: 860-882-0271
Website: http://harringtonsorganic.com/organic-land-care-services-hartford-county-connecticut/soil-testing/

And for those down under

Australia Testing Laboratories
Agpath P/L
105 Gunn Road
Garfield, Victoria 3814 Australia
Phone: +61 (0)3 5629 1253
Mobile: +61 (0) 413013247
Email: agpath@dcsi.net.au
Website: www.agpath.com.au


There are others but these are my preferences, the first one is Elaine Ingham's lab, I consider it the best on the planet.

Redhawk
 
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Gabe brown mentioned someone in temple,tx that developed a test for his grounds. I think his name was mentioned.

Gabe had a situation where he grew corn in a plot that measured 10lbs of nitrogen per acre when current thought was 200lbs was needed. Dont hold me on the numbers, but its a confirmation from another that the soil tests may not apply to soils with high organic matter. I think he met or exceeded corn production with the low nitrogen compared to others in his county that added nitrogen based on their current standards.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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You got the figures right Wayne.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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There have been quite a few studies done on the subject of adding bacteria to the soil, most of them came to the conclusion that it is at the least very difficult to add bacteria and get them to survive.
That would indicate that we are performing exercises in futility, (wasting our time) however the work that has been done on compost teas and the ways to use them contradict these conclusions.
When we grow the microorganisms by making really good compost we are not just growing bacteria and this seems to be the key, to add a biome not just one type of organism.
Bacteria thrive only in soils that have adequate humus, this means that if we are adding compost that contains the biome we want to live in our soil, it should survive since we are not only adding the organisms but also the humus they require to survive.

Some soil types such as very sandy loam, tend to make added humus disappear. It has been thought for many years that what is happening is a form of leaching, causing the added humus to sink deep into the soil.
Recently it has been discovered that at least part of the problem is too much bacterial growth occurs and the humus is eaten up as the left overs are what get leached down deep.
To combat this phenomenon compost with a complete microbiome of organisms is far better when the compost contains around 5% clay particles and more fungi than previously thought to be necessary.
The clay particles in the compost allow the fungi to clump sand particles around the hyphae and the clay sticks to sand particles which allows even more clumping so that the sandy condition becomes more loamy.
Once we get the sandy soil to have more loamy characteristics the microorganisms have more places to live and that prevents a rain event from washing them deeper into the soil.
If you do just two treatments with such a compost on sandy soil and follow each application with a heavy seeding of plants you can build a new soil structure that will support a fungal network.
Fungal networks do rather miraculous things to soils, regardless of their original makeup, fungi can change the texture, water holding ability and retain humus all things the gardener desires for their soil.

The bacteria, as part of the compost will tend to hang out in the top foot of soil, providing food for most of the organisms of the soil biosphere.
This is exactly what we want to be going on in our soil, high levels of activity by high numbers of organisms.
So far there has not been any indication of a soil with too high organism counts in an overall diverse system, apparently when there are too many organisms the situation self corrects in healthy soil.

As you can see, to be able to add bacteria, effectively, to soil we need to also add the other organisms that bacteria support and have symbiotic relationships with so that the bacteria will survive once installed.
So our composts need to be complete compost that has heated and been turned with nearly just right moisture throughout the process of composting.
This will insure that we end up with a compost that has the complete microbiome we desire and thus we can install good amounts of the organisms to the soil by incorporating that good compost.
Once we have the soil containing good amounts of humus we can use teas to add more organisms and humus so the system will do self adjustment to have the correct quantities of each type of organism.
This gives us a cosmopolitan soil, one that has all the right organisms in the right numbers to support any plants we put into the soil, providing our plants with all the nutrients they require to grow at their optimum.
The result will be crops that contain superior nutrient values when compared to what you can find in your grocery store.

Next time we will delve into the roles of fungi

Redhawk  
 
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I won’t take exception to the general ideas in the opening post.  I know that a plow-less, more horticultural approach can be good — can work to the benefit of microbiological soil health, and can be productive for annual crops, permanent plantings, plant guilds, etc.  And soil testing methods are probably very much geared to industrially managed inert soils. But  I do want to examine this statement, though.  I think it's a bit too general, and I'll give an example illustrating why I think this.

Bryant RedHawk wrote:
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"



I’d like to broaden the conceptual panorama of living-soil a little.  I’ll cite the example of a family I know in my region and how they run a small farm.  They keep a little organically raised livestock: some horses, some chickens & ducks, a few head of cattle.  Hence, they have an annual supply of various manures, which they compost.  They maintain a sizeable market garden (somewhat under half an acre) and produce beautiful crops, sold both farm-gate and at local outdoor farmers’ markets.

The way it’s done there is that they plow the soil in the market garden and bury composted manure roughly a foot below grade by disking the soil over it.  Then making shallow furrows in this surface, they plant the annual crops that sell well for them.  They’ve been doing this now for many years and no one who knows them has noticed and sign of soil-biology degradation — in fact, if anything the opposite has been visible.  This market-garden site is fairly level, so there is very little erosion by runoff.

The husband in this family was employed for a long time by the local sawmill, which enabled the investment in equipment, their home & other buildings, etc. Once the mill closed, the family was strictly dependent (and has lived well) on farm income and the direct support of food grown on the place.

Despite the use of the plow, the method used on this farm very definitely does not involve lifeless “dirt” into which industrially produced chemicals are introduced.  It’s an organic method, a somewhat different approach than I use (I don’t use a plow), and it depends on a living soil.

As I implied at the start, I don’t outline this to argue in favour of plow-based gardening & farming or the common methods of soil testing.  And obviously the family I’m referring to depends on their modest-size Ford tractor that runs on a modest amount of petroleum.  But the point is that their farm does illustrate that careful farmers in the era before industrially produced artificial fertilizers were capable of maintaining biological soil health by similar methods (even when a plow, traditionally horse-drawn, was used).  I'm not advocating that people plow or even rototill soil, if they can settle on effective methods to support themselves by raising food without furrowing or stirring the soil surface.  I believe we're still learning things and can find better ways to garden and farm.  But I'd advise against thinking that plowing necessarily drastically diminishes life in the soil.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau Joel, Apparently you have not bothered to read this series, if you had I doubt you would be making these comments.

Chemical farming started at the end of WWI and has only grown from that point forward in time.

Even in the period of the civil war there was degradation of farm lands due to over working the land. This is well documented.
What do you suppose created the Dust Bowl? It was a perfect storm of over worked farm land and changes in wind currents during a draught.

If you are making amendments by turning composted manures into the soil, you aren't plowing as I was referring too.
 
Joel Bercardin
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Thanks for the reply, Bryant.  Mm… possibly you misunderstood what I was trying to say.  I’m not a champion of the mouldboard plow.

The point about the devastating results of “mining farmland” (going back to the Dust Bowl and even many years before that) is something I had absorbed.  I remember in my twenties reading Farmers of Forty Centuries, which critiqued Euro-American farming practices by contrasting them with the best of trad Asian practice.  Also read some of Ruth Stout’s writings, and Ploughman’s Folly by Faulkner.  I soon came across some of the permaculture literature that had been published in the '70s & '80s by the Aussie guys.

What I tried to say in my post is that some people who do choose to use a small tractor compensate for a lot of the disruption of biological soil life by the plow — and, with increasing crop health, seem to be successful at it.  I’m sure the system of the family I described is much more biologically active than the result of conventional ag.  Their system (on level ground) is much more sustainable than what industrial ag does.  And it's conceivable (to me) that at least some North American farmers in 1900, through careful practices, did a pretty decent job.

I really only commented on one point that I quoted from one of your posts.  I meant no radical disagreement with you and your knowledge/insights.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Hau Joel, it would seem we are on the same page but expressing the ideas in differing ways.

The family you mentioned is far more "organic farming" than Commercial farms indeed.
Plowing in compost and other organic materials while excluding chemical fertilizers will always work, but there is still the issue of sunburn when that soil is turned more than once.
Adding the compost does replenish the microbiome, but how much larger would that microbiome be if the compost were just used as an over-winter mulch, that is the million dollar question.

I know lots of farmers that do as your friends are doing, there is nothing wrong with it and I have even mentioned that there really isn't anything wrong with their method.

I then bring up that even though their method works, they could do even better, most of these farmers I work with still want to plow the soil over and over, looking for that silky seed bed soil.
Once you have done that, you have killed all soil life, so from that point forward you are rebuilding what you killed.
That seems to me to be spinning money down the farmer's drain. Seeds don't need a silky smooth seed bed to germinate quite well, so limit the tillage and the soil organisms will love you back.

Those that limit their tilling passes and use those passes they make to incorporate good composted organic material are not doing the same thing.
These folks are going to see far better results both growth wise and nutrient density wise than "commercial farms", their method is that half way point, not fully to no-till but not tilling to death either.
Kola Joseph Lofthouse does this and I don't think anyone can argue with his results, he has developed the method that works in his environment and that is great and wonderfully the way farms should be worked.
I have lived all over the planet and I have never found two places that the exact same methods would work identically well, there are always some tweaks that need to be done to get similar results.
 
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