Soil Conditioner: What Is It & Why Do You Need It?

Good soil is the foundation of a healthy garden.

Still, it is not uncommon for landscape and garden soil to be lacking in organic matter and texture allowing for good air circulation, good drainage, and correct distribution of nutrients.

soil conditioners and items to improve soil

When this is the case, the right soil conditioners can make all the difference in the world.

In this article, we discuss soil conditioners and share advice to help you amend your soil correctly.

Read on to learn more.

What’s In Soil?

Soil is made up of soil particles (silt, sand, and clay) minerals, living organisms, and water.

Different types of soil contain different percentages of these components, and this is what accounts for variations in soil texture.

The texture of the soil is a very important part of soil quality and contributes to or detracts from plant health.

An ideal soil is porous to allow air and water to move freely. It is made up of a light balance of clay, silt, and sand. This type of soil is correctly described as “loamy.”

When soil is not balanced, it is necessary to correct its composition by adding amendments, also known as soil conditioners.

How Can You Tell If Your Soil Needs Conditioning?

There are many kinds of poor soil, and some are easy to identify.

For example, if your soil is very hard and compacted or sticky with clay, you know it is imbalanced and needs organic matter added to lighten it and improve porosity.

If your soil is very sandy or rocky or doesn’t even support the growth of native plants, you know it is lacking in nutrients and needs natural fertilizing substances, such as organic compost or manure tilled in to enrich it and give it greater ability to hold the right amount of moisture.

These qualities can often be detected and judged simply be digging into your soil and looking at it.

Perform a “jar test” as demonstrated here:

Salty or chalky soil with a pH level extremely high or extremely low will need to be tested to identify exactly what is wrong.

Talk with your county extension agent to get assistance and advice.

It’s important to correct bad soil before you begin your garden.

Unbalanced soil interferes with plants’ ability to uptake water and nutrients and can cause stunting, wilting, drying, and even plant death.

How Do You Choose The Right Soil Conditioner?

Good soil conditioners improve the structure of the soil by increasing the capacity to hold water, increasing aeration and adding nutrients, and releasing those already present.

A good choice in soil conditioner will loosen clay and hardpan soils compacted and unyielding.

The right soil conditioner will also help correct pH levels.

Your goal in choosing a soil conditioner should be to create a soil about half inorganic or organic material.

Its texture should provide for about a quarter water space and a quarter air space.

This combination will allow air and water to move freely through the soil, supporting beneficial organisms, and healthy plant life.

What’s The Difference Between Organic & Inorganic Material?

It’s important to add nutrient-rich organic matter (e.g., compost, manure, etc.) to your soil, but inorganic matter, such as:

  • Pulverized Limestone
  • Polysaccharides
  • Polyacrylamides
  • Glauconite
  • Gypsum
  • Slate

…can help improve the texture of the soil, increase air circulation, and improve drainage.

Organic material added to poor soil also helps lighten its texture.

It adds nutrients, along with beneficial fungi and soil microbes, which work to make the nutrients more easily available to plants.

Organic material can come from a wide variety of sources.

Fresh organic matter, such as fresh manure, decomposes very quickly and may be quite hot while decomposing.

If you work fresh organic matter into your soil, it’s a good idea to wait a month before planting to give the material a chance to compost in place, a process which adds lots of nutrients and beneficial microorganisms to the soil.

Composted organic materials have already decomposed and are added to existing gardens and used to amend soil immediately before planting.

Properly composted organic matter which has attained a consistent temperature of 140° degrees Fahrenheit (60° C) adds lots of nutrients but is not as rich in beneficial microorganisms.

Thoroughly composted organic matter is unlikely to introduce pathogens and weed seeds to your garden.

What Are Some Examples Of Organic Matter?

Composting Leaves from deciduous trees make a wonderful soil amendment and/or addition to your compost pile.

When used directly in the garden, they are used as mulch to hold in moisture while releasing important nutrients into the soil.

Partially decomposed leaves are called leaf mold.

These are worked into the soil to provide nutrients.

This is a good idea for vegetable gardens and new landscape beds.

Yard trimming or garden compost is easy to make and is a good way to dispose of your yard trimmings while making the most of the nutrients they possess.

Compost your grass clippings, tree, shrub, and brush trimmings and raked up leaves to make your own nutrient-rich compost.

This is an ongoing process taking between three and nine months to complete.

It’s a good idea to have a couple of compost piles or bins working at once to provide a constant source of soil conditioner throughout the growing season.

Manure provides essential nutrients to the soil and is a good addition to landscape and vegetable gardens; however, if used in a vegetable garden, be sure fruits and veggies and other edible parts of the plant do not come into contact with the soil as manure may contaminate them and pose a risk to human health.

Be aware composted manure may contain high levels of salt.

This problem is corrected by adding gypsum to the organic matter at a rate of a half-pound per cubic yard.

Alternately, combine composted manure with garden compost to dilute the salt in the manure.

Mix 3 parts garden compost with 1 part composted manure.

Mushroom compost is purchased.

It is made up of composted manure, along with cottonseed meal and other organic matter.

This is compost, which has already been used to grow mushrooms.

It is full of nutrients, but it is high in salt and should be diluted as described above regarding the use of manure compost.

Mulch products consisting of coarsely shredded tree bark act as soil conditioners by holding moisture into the soil and adding nutrients gradually as they break down on the surface of the soil.

Leaves, straw, and pine straw (needles) are also used as organic mulch.

As a bonus, a thick layer of mulch helps block weed growth.

Bark products labeled as soil conditioners are very finely shredded tree bark meant to be tilled into the soil to loosen it and improve aeration and drainage properties.

Like bark used as mulch, this organic material enriches the soil gradually through decomposition.

How Do You Use Soil Conditioners?

Begin by examining your soil and performing all necessary testing to determine exactly what you have and what you need.

Remember, organic soil conditioners do improve soil texture, but their main strength lies in providing nutrients and beneficial organisms to the soil.

To improve drainage and aerate the soil, you may need to add some inorganic matter, as mentioned above.

Based on your observations and testing, and perhaps a consultation with your county extension agent, formulate a combination of soil conditioning materials to perfectly suit your needs.

This will vary from place-to-place and purpose-to-purpose, but generally speaking, a good combination looks something like:

  • Three parts yard and garden compost
  • One part manure compost
  • One part inorganic matter

Till this mixture into your planting bed before you plant. Use this mixture as a top dressing around trees and bushes or in existing vegetable and landscape beds.

It also gives a boost to areas of bare turf in need of repair.

Remember adding organic matter to your soil is beneficial, but if you add too much, it is detrimental.

After you have added your soil conditioner, your soil should be about fifty percent organic matter.

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