If your plants aren't healthy, check the soil

When looking for reasons why their plants look sick, gardeners often suspect insects or diseases. It's true that insects and diseases do cause many plant problems, but often overlooked are poor soil conditions.

When looking for reasons why their plants look sick, gardeners often suspect insects or diseases. It's true that insects and diseases do cause many plant problems, but often overlooked are poor soil conditions.

How do you know if you have soil that your plants aren't happy with? There are two important steps that you should take.


First do a visual inspection. Does your garden soil have difficulty absorbing water after a moderate amount of precipitation; say about one-half to 1 inch? If so, take a handful of soil and squeeze it between your thumb and index finger.

If you are able to form a "ribbon" of soil, chances are you are dealing with a finely textured soil that is clay-like and clay soils drain poorly. If you aren't able to form a ribbon but instead the soil crumbles, then you probably have a sandy soil and most likely it drains well.


Ideally you will have a soil that is between clay and sand. Whether it's sandy or clay-like, adding lots of organic matter to your soil will improve its texture.

Organic matter separates clay particles which improves drainage. When organic matter is added to sandy soil, the drainage is decreased; this helps keep moisture around longer for the benefit of your plants' roots.

Salt signsSome poor soil conditions are obvious. A white crusty residue on the soil surface is a bad sign and probably means that you have too much salt in your soil. A high level of salt injures your plants by slowing the uptake of water and nutrients by their roots.

If plants growing in these areas are stunted or dull looking and if the leaf edges look scorched, salt most likely is the culprit. There may be several reasons for high salt levels in your soil but a high water table is a major factor. As ground water rises, it pushes up existing salts and leaves an accumulation on the soil surface. Unfortunately, there are no additives that will neutralize salt in your soil.

Step twoThe second step in determining what your soil is actually like involves a soil test. The test may not only confirm your suspicions of high salt content, but it will also provide other useful information about pH, organic matter, and available plant nutrients.

The acidity or alkalinity of your soil is measured from one to 14 on a pH scale. Seven on the scale is neutral and this is where many garden plants are happiest. Soils in this region can sometimes climb up to pH levels of more than 8½ which is too high for many of our favorite garden plants.

Adding organic matter sometimes will help lower the pH of your soil if you use peat or sphagnum peat moss because they usually are highly acidic. Elemental sulfur will also help lower pH. However, soil additives are not permanent and will need to be applied regularly to keep your plants growing well.

More tipsHere are some other solutions for growing healthy plants where the soil is not good:


  • Try to improve the drainage in areas where water tends to stand; aeration will also help.
  • The lists aren't long, but try to choose varieties of: trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and vegetables that will grow in areas of high pH or salty soils.
  • Stop fighting the problem and instead, plant above the existing soil in raised beds and mounds.

Raised beds need to be at least 18 inches high in order to contain enough soil for good plant growth; higher is even better. Be sure to use fresh soil that is free of all the problems already mentioned. Gently shaped mounds for planting landscape plants should also be at least 18 inches high.
Both raised beds and mounds have the advantage of getting your plants' roots up and out of the existing soil conditions as well as adding some interesting and attractive features to your landscape.

For more information regarding this topic, contact your local county office of the NDSU or University of Minnesota Extension Service.

Related Topics: AGRICULTURE
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