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Vol 11, Issue 3

THE CONSTITUTION OF SOIL AMENDMENTS - AND WHY IT PAYS TO GET THE DIRT ON YOUR DIRT
When terms like constitution and amendments are up for discussion one would almost think a political conversation is forthcoming. Interestingly enough, these happen to be the same terms used to describe characteristics of soil and soil treatments in a wide variety of uses. Considering the constitution of the soil refers to planning for the health of whatever plants are to grow there. Amending a starter soil to achieve optimal growability is often a necessity. The process sounds basic enough until one considers that soil amending is a science in itself. If not done with care and detail it could degrade the fertility of the soil. Quite simply, it makes good economic and aesthetic sense to carefully plan for a successful project.

FUNDAMENTALS OF IDEAL SOIL


All soils are a combination of inorganic and organic elements. Inorganic elements range in particle size from microscopic clay flakes to rounded silt particles to sand grains, depending on the origin of the soil. Organic elements consist of plant materials of various sizes and origins and animal and insect waste materials. All of these organics are in varying states of decomposition. An ideal soil has around 50% pore space, known as void. Half of this void is ideally occupied by water, the other half by air or gases. Soil also contains microorganisms, up to 100 million per tablespoon of soil. These bacteria and fungi aid in freeing up nutrients by decomposing organic matter and will even act on some metals. Some are pathogenic, most are benign. Any soil containing less than 3% organic material will not offer adequate nutrients for plant growth, while above 8% can actually be detrimental to the soil. Too much organic decomposition may alter pH and salt levels beyond helpful

ranges. A soil whose structure is too heavily composed of either clay or sand will require restructuring as too much clay will fill the pore space, choking out air and water needed by roots. Conversely, too much sand creates too much void and water drains away, drying roots.

FACTORS IN SOIL AMENDMENT


The process of adding amendments involves adding inorganic or organic material to soil to improve its properties of water retention, percolation, drainage, aeration, nutrient availability, and structure. Prior to any amending, the soil should be tested for salts, pH, organics and other nutrients, structural elements, and contaminant levels. Testing offers a springboard to determine what amendments the soil requires to

bring it up to optimal structure and organic levels. Generally four factors are considered when choosing soil amendments: - The longevity of the availability of the nutrients in the soil. Does the intended use require quick availability of nutrients, a time-release of nutrients, or a combination of the two? - Soil texture - Does soil require manipulation with inorganic elements? - Soil salinity and intended plant sensitivity to salt - pH of intended soil for plantings Dr. Tom Halbach, University of Minnesota Professor in the Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, offers this principle for soil amendment; The purpose of adding organics into soil is to regenerate a natural carbon cycle into the long term horizon of the soil. Soils require

more than the three common elements (nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus) found in most chemical fertilizers to grow healthy plants. Plants need ten macro nutrients and over 17 trace elements to thrive. Most of these nutrients are ideally sourced from organic materials in the soil.

ARE ALL ORGANIC AMENDMENTS THE SAME?


Organic amendment feed stocks come from sources that were alive at one point in time. As such, any soil test measuring organic elements is a snapshot in time due to the fact that these elements are continually changing due to decomposition. These changes are largely desirable and beneficial but need to be taken into consideration in the science of soil amending. Soils or composts that are specified on commercial projects are generally expected to meet MNDOT specs, but over time there can be a reasonable difference in performance based on the quality of the feed stock used to generate the amended soil. Dr. Halbach likens the variability of composts to the differing qualities of baking a

chocolate cake using multiple recipes and quality/type of ingredients. Upon appearance, the cakes would all be said to be chocolate cake, but taste, texture, storage, and nutrient content may vary widely based on the ingredients and method of preparation. Plants feeding on compost-amended soil would find the same variability based on the unique blend of materials used. Organic amendments require a period of composting to allow for release of nutrients and destruction of pathogenic bacteria before they provide benefit to the soil. Wood products in the form of chips and fines are routinely used as amendments. However, fresh wood products can actually bind up nitrogen, causing plants growing in the environment to be nitrogen deficient. Once

wood products have been allowed to decompose for several months, the microbial action and heat generated in composting releases nitrogen and makes it available as a source for plants. A similar issue occurs in composts containing manure, an oft-used and desirable compost ingredient. Fresh manure contains elevated ammonia levels which can be toxic to plants. It also contains pathogens which should not be present where vegetables may be grown or people frequent. Manure should be aged in compost at least 6 months in piles that reach at least 140 degrees internally. Home compost systems do not sustain this level, but large commercial compost systems typically do.

hand-in-hand with soil scientists and testing facilities over the past 17 years to continually improve the quality of their soil and compost. Experienced with successful results in their projects, MMS delivers amendment products that not only meet MNDOT specs but also bolster noticeably vibrant established plantings. Whether bringing amendments to the site and incorporating them into on-site soil, or hauling in custom or spec soils, results are positive and on-going. MMS President, Marty Long, credits the unique balance of feed stocks and attention to the ongoing composting process of these materials for the success of project plantings using MMS products. He shares, a good amendment compost is actually like making sourdough bread. Once we created the ideal compost starter years ago by mixing feed stocks, micro-

organisms, heat, and time, we have kept this starter alive from year to year, feeding it with new organics and letting it cook during the winter months. When we saw how well plants have responded to it, we knew we had the right micro-organisms doing the right stuff. With the right food, we have been producing it ever since. While reproducing consistent qualities of compost amendments from year to year is not an exact science, experience with the optimal blend of contaminant-free feed stocks inoculated with starter compost and aged with care results in superior products for MMS from season to season. Planning the constitution of soil amendments makes good economic and aesthetic sense. It is precisely in this planning that you can gain the real dirt on your dirt, and this can equal to pay dirt as optimal growability is achieved.

MMS AND THE SCIENCE OF SOIL AMENDMENT


Minnesota Mulch and Soil (MMS) has been in the forefront working

P.O. Box 270101 St. Paul, Minnesota 55127 (651) 755-4371 mnmulchsoil@comcast.net www.mnmulchandsoil.com

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The Dirt on Dirt


Amendments
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- Make a soil perform better - Meet MnDOT specs

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