If you have poor soil, three of the big points that should be looked at initially are soil pH, soil fertility, and moisture. We want the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital “living ecosystem” that will sustain plants and animals. By adjusting the soil pH, the plants will then be able to utilize the proper nutrient levels. We also need to be concerned with organic matter and soil microbes. Plants release carbohydrates through their roots into the soil that the microbes feed on in exchange for nutrients and water. Thirdly, the soil must receive the correct amount of moisture - too much is just as bad as not enough.
Try these things to improve your soil quality.
1. Get a Soil Test
I know you’re sick of hearing it, but it all starts with a soil test. I would also suggest if your budget is limited, spend your money on lime before NPK fertilizer. If your pH isn’t right to begin with, your plants physically won’t be able to draw the nutrients you’re adding from the fertilizer.
2. Green Manure
“Green manure” is basically a crop that is grown and then turned into the soil to improve its fertility. It depends upon what specifically your soil needs, but if you’re lacking organic matter, buckwheat is one of my favorite plantings to accomplish this. Some other examples include annual ryegrass, clovers, vetch, peas and winter wheat.
3. Crop Rotation
Crop rotation is not only good for your soil, it will save you money on fertilizer if you plan properly. If nutrients are being removed from the soil, somehow they must be replenished for the soil’s long-term health.
The right poop can make your plot pop. Manure is packed with nutrients that plants need and can aid in keeping plants healthy and green. However, it can sometimes be so potent that it may burn some plants. To prevent this, mix it with soil, compost, a bit of alfalfa hay or straw. Many feel this should be done the fall prior so the manure has time to break down further.
Nearly any kind of manure can be used depending on where you live, as some manure is more readily available than others. Horse, cow, turkey and chicken manure are the most widely used. It’s suggested to stay away from dog and cat waste as it can contain parasites.
Don’t turn your soil unless you have to, and always try to have something growing in the spot. The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) says, “Physical soil disturbance, such as tillage, results in bare and/or compacted soil that is destructive and disruptive to soil microbes, and it creates a hostile environment for them to live. All forms of soil disturbance diminish habitat for soil microbes and result in a diminished soil food web.” The NRCS also suggests to “Keep a living root growing throughout the year. Living plants maintain a ‘rhizosphere,’ an area of concentrated microbial activity close to the root. The rhizosphere is the most active part of the soil – it’s where the most readily available food is, and where peak nutrient and water cycling occurs.”
Compost is organic matter that has been decomposed. Well-rotted compost is one of the best soil amendments you can add to your food plot, and it’s impossible to use too much! Compost is full of organic matter and nutrients and this fertile amendment lightens heavy soils while providing structure to lose soils.
Composted lawn clippings and leaves along with any other organic material will add nutrients to the mix. Rotten vegetables, garden scraps, fish carcasses…it all adds nutrients. Turn/mix the compost at least twice per year. This is not a small compost bin we’re referring to if you want enough to take care of a plot an acre or more in size. When you can’t recognize the individual ingredients any longer, it’s ready to use.
7. Antler Dirt
Antler Dirt is a soil amendment specifically made for us gamekeepers. It’s similar to the compost above, but it’s made with science behind it. It’s prepared in controlled conditions to ensure only the good micro and macro nutrients are present and your soil gets exactly what it needs. It’s comprised of processed turkey and chicken manure, fine ground mined limestone, mined gypsum and a process that is regulated meticulously.
Where you may need to add both, lime to reduce the soil’s acidity and then fertilizer so the plants have something to eat, with Antler Dirt you only need one product; it takes care of your pH and nutrients in one application.
Perlite is a light, volcanic material that will increase soil permeability and drainage and helps significantly with aeration. Perlite is cheap (about $50-$60 per ton), and has high permeability/low water retention and helps prevent soil compaction. Mixing it with manure or compost is suggested.
9. Peat Moss
Sphagnum peat moss is a lightweight spongy material that’s great for making sandy soils more water absorbent. Commercially, it’s typically harvested from a peat bog. Just like compost or manure, peat will also loosen heavy clay soils, but you need to be careful it doesn’t make the soil too soggy. Peat decomposes slowly and is slightly acidic. This can be expensive on large acreage, but a little goes a long way.
Vermiculite lightens soils much like perlite, but it also helps to hold moisture. So vermiculite can make clay soils too soggy, but it can increase the water retention of sandy soils.
If your property is located in an area with poor soil, just know this doesn’t all have to be corrected at once. Looking at acres and acres that may need to be improved can seem intimidating. But being a gamekeeper isn’t a “one and then you’re done” type pastime anyhow. Break it down into an acre at a time or smaller parcel size if need be, and do what you can when you can – it all adds up.