Soil vs Fertilizer | GroveGypsy

If you want to have a vibrant and healthy garden, you are going to want to know the difference between soil and fertilizer.

Soil is a nutrient-dense compound consisting of various minerals, gases, as well as living and nonliving organisms, which are essential for growing plants and food.  Fertilizer is a natural or unnatural material that is added to soil to increase its nutrient value.

There are few things that compare to a wonderful day in your yard tending to your garden.  This therapeutic hobby has the magic of alleviating stress, bringing a certain harmony into our lives, and rewarding us with beautiful plants or delicious homegrown food.  To make the most out of your garden and keep it as healthy as possible, you are going to want to know the difference between soil and fertilizer, so that you know how to treat and utilize them both.  To help you understand this further, we are going to take you through everything you need to know about soil and fertilizer.

The contents of your soil and the materials that your fertilizer is made out of are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture.  This government organization is responsible for ensuring the responsible and environmentally sound treatment of soil to prevent land degradation and soil infertility.

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Soil

What many people forget is that soil is one of our most valuable natural resources and is to this day responsible for more than 90% of all food that is grown on this Earth.  This incredible material has so much societal value that without it, our species would not be where it is today.

This compound has been utilized by humans for thousands of years and is as valuable today as it ever has been.  In fact, it may even be more valuable now given that this natural resource is under greater threat than it ever has been before.  This has been largely due to unsustainable farming practices, which lead to soil degradation and soil infertility.

During the mid-20th century, as industrial farming got into full swing, we began utilizing farming and food growing methods that we never had before.  These methods were created to establish a more efficient approach for growing food.  While many of these farming practices appeared to be groundbreaking at the time, they ended up jeopardizing one of our most valuable natural resources - soil!

After realizing the slippery slope that we were headed down, the government and the agricultural industry scrambled to make changes to the farming industry that would protect our soil from infertility and would secure this natural resource for generations.  Luckily for us, their actions had the desired effect and farming practices were brought into regulation. To understand more about soil and its importance, let’s dissect this natural resource in depth.

What Is Soil?

One of the biggest misconceptions that many people make about soil is that they confuse it with dirt.  The difference between the two is that one is capable of producing food and plants and the other can not.

The reason for this is that soil is filled with millions of microscopic organisms, minerals, gases, liquids, and materials, which make it a hub for life to flourish.  In fact, soil is much like an ecosystem for life that we, generally, simply cannot see with the naked eye.  Dirt, however, is part of the equations of soil in that it serves as a filler compound for all of the nutrients and entities that exist within soil.

Now, given that soil resembles an ecosystem, it is important to know that, just like an ecosystem, it can be very fragile and may be put at risk if ideal conditions are not met.  This is why soil is not something for us to take for granted and certainly not a resource that we can afford to abuse.

This delicate compound is what keeps all people on our planet alive and without it, all of humanity is put at risk, which is why it is essential that we take care of our soil and learn as much about it in the process.

How To Use Soil

Using soil has never been easier - with gardening being one of the most common hobbies in the United States - having access to this nutrient-dense resource is very easy.  It is likely that you will not have soil already in your yard that is ideal for plants, which is why you are going to want to head to your local nursery to pick up a sack.

Despite how valuable soil is, the cost of it is very affordable and you should be able to buy a 40lb bag of it for right around $5.  If you are just planning on planting a handful of pots or laying out a relatively small garden bed, one 40lb bag should be plenty to get you started.  However, if you are maintaining a medium to a large garden, you will need to get a few sacks at least.

Adding your soil for potted plants is very straightforward and is as simple as placing a generous portion into each pot.  For a garden bed, you are going to want to find a clear patch in your yard to layout your soil on.  Before you start pouring soil out, be sure to clear any unwanted debris from the area to give yourself a clean slate.  This will include any rocks, twigs, or mulch from a previous harvest.

Once you have cleared your spot, begin pouring the soil over your designated planting area.  You should lay about 3 inches of topsoil over the surface of the area.  Then, take a shovel and dig up to about 6 inches below the topsoil to breach about 3 inches of the ground.  Next, begin mixing the topsoil and dirt together to create the base of your soil.

Once you have finished your garden bed, take your plants and dig enough depth into the area you want to plant them and stick them in there!  Be sure to give them an ample amount of water to help them start the growing process.  If you are using seeds, simply place each seed a reasonable distance apart from one another at a depth of just an inch or so (so they can germinate).

How To Maintain Soil

Given that soil can be such a fragile natural resource, it’s important that you take the time to give it everything that it needs throughout the year.

This means that you have to regularly tend to your plants and do routine checkups on the health of the soil.  This can be achieved by implementing a number of different gardening practices.  A lot of these techniques are historic and have been around for as long as we have been growing food and planting plants!  Let’s dive into the different ways you can take care of your soil.

Crop Rotation

For about as long as we have been growing anything in our soil, we have utilized crop rotation as a fundamental tactic.  Crop rotation is simple and highly effective.  To implement it, all you need to do is change the area in which you plant your crops or plants after each harvest.

So, if you were planting a specific plant in one part of your garden, simply move it to a different spot each year.  While this technique is very simple, it was abandoned by many western countries during the rise of industrial farming.  Given that crop rotation takes a bit more work, industrial farms figured it would be more efficient to grow single crops on their farms.

This has proven to be very problematic for the health of our soil, as failure to rotate crops results in soil infertility and land degradation.  The way this occurs is that each individual type of plant tends to target a specific nutrient within the soil that it prefers and then uses it primarily.  While this does not have damaging effects after a harvest or two, the continuation of this method has catastrophic effects on topsoil.

With that being said, you are going to want to be sure to practice crop rotation in your garden to ensure that you are not making the same mistakes Big Agro made.

Mulch

When it comes to a healthy garden, having some mulch can make all the difference for many people.  Mulch is essentially just an organic or inorganic material that is used to help facilitate soil nutrition and stabilization.

This material is placed on top of the soil to act as a barrier for your garden.  Here are some of the common materials mulch is made of:

  • Tanbark
  • Dried Leaves
  • Sawdust
  • Woodchips
  • Straw
  • Grass Clippings

These materials are very easy to find and can be implemented into your garden for very cheap - or in some cases, even for free!  The best way to find mulch is to buy some from a nursery or you can try to track down a landscaper (or landscaping company) to ask if you can acquire some mulch from them.

The use of mulch in your garden will help your soil retain moisture.  The material absorbs water and keeps moisture constantly in your garden, which saves you on money and time that you spend watering.  Mulch will also act as a thermal barrier, which stabilizes the temperature of your soil, which is especially beneficial if you are gardening in cooler climates or during the winter season.

In addition, mulch can also break down into your soil and add nutrient value to your garden.  This is one of the great benefits of using organic mulch as opposed to inorganic.

Fertilizer

If you are getting into gardening, you are going to want to be well-versed with what fertilizer is and how you can implement it in your garden.  

These days, fertilizers are so widely used in home gardens and many people swear by them as being essential for their plants. To understand why let’s explore what fertilizer is and how to use it.

What Is Fertilizer

Fertilizer is essentially an organic or chemical-based material that is added to soil to increase its nutrient value.

There are many different types of fertilizers out there and each one is designed to serve a different purpose for your plants.  With that being said, fertilizer is not so much about taking care of your plants as it is taking care of your soil.

This is contrary to how most people have perceived gardening as we tend to view anything we add to our garden as being added to whatever we are growing.  In actuality, the way to view fertilizers and anything else you put into your garden is to ask ‘what effect will this have on the nutrient value of my soil’.  

With that being said, soil is the key and fertilizer is an important resource to utilize when maintaining it.  It’s important to note, however, that fertilizers fall under some scrutiny with various gardeners - in particular, chemical-based fertilizers.  As we adopt more sustainable living practices, many gardeners have weeded out the use of chemical fertilizers in their gardens altogether and have opted purely for organic fertilizers.

Organic fertilizers are full of nutrients, which have materials that are exclusively natural.  These materials could include some of the following:

  • Kelp
  • Mushroom
  • Horse droppings
  • Bone Meal

There are many natural materials that can be found within fertilizers and they have an amazing effect on keeping your soil healthy.  These organic fertilizers tend to target a wide variety of nutrients within your soil and keep it fertile for years.

Alternatively, there are chemical-based fertilizers, which also are widely used but have become much less popular in recent years.  This is not only to do with the environmental repercussions of chemical-based fertilizers but also their lack of dynamic nutrient benefits.

Unlike organic fertilizers, chemical ones tend to target a specific type of nutrient(s) within your soil, which makes them good for short-term solutions, but bad for longevity.  Eventually, all chemical fertilizers will lead to land degradation and soil infertility.  Whereas organic fertilizers increase the likelihood that your soil will stay healthy for a long time.

How To Use Fertilizer

A key aspect of using fertilizers is to utilize them at the right time.  Since each plant is quite different, you will find that certain fertilizers get the job done better than others.  This is due to each fertilizer being designed to provide a specific amount and type of nutrients.

Fertilizer Nutrients

The way to determine which fertilizer is best suited for what you are growing is to compare the nutrient value of the fertilizer you plan on using to what your plants need.  You will find that fertilizers are assigned 3 numbers marked as X-X-X, which determines the nutrients that it has in it; nitrogen(X), phosphorus(X), and potassium (X).

When you purchased your seeds or your plants, you will see that they are also marked with a set of 3 numbers, which signify the nutrients that it needs.  You can then buy fertilizer that has been designed for your plants to help them have optimal growth.

When To Add Fertilizer

You normally want to add fertilizer to most of your soil right at the start of the season.  This is to help your soil regenerate nutrients before the next harvest cycle begins.  How much fertilizer you end up needing to add to the soil will be determined on a case-by-case basis for each plant, which should be marked on the packaging.

With that being said, there are certain plants that benefit from a boost in specific nutrients throughout the season.  This is something you will have to assess depending on what you are growing, but you can expect to need to do this for certain vegetables primarily.

You will also find that a light addition of fertilizer once or twice during the season can do wonders for your garden and your soil nutrients.

Applying Fertilizer

When applying your fertilizer into your garden, you want to give the product/material an even spread over the bed of your garden.

After you have evenly put fertilizer on the surface of your garden, dig it in about 4 or 5 inches deep into the soil so that it gets mixed in well.

Once you have mixed it in properly, lightly water your soil to start the process of breaking down the fertilizer so that it can start adding nutritional value to your soil.  

About THE AUTHOR

Elsie Moore

Elsie Moore

As an experienced gardener & landscaper on my own property over the last 20 years, I'm excited to share the things I've learned along the way, as I continue to learn.

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