Let's Talk About Soil Health
Healthy soil equals Happy plant
As houseplant enthusiasts, I think we sometimes get caught up in the houseplant hype, that we forget about one of the most crucial components to plant care – the soil.
Healthy soil has the potential to help our plants live their best lives, literally! Now, if you are like... “well then – how do I get healthy soil?” I am here to help. I do want to point out, this is not an all-encompassing scientific report on everything required to help you achieve a healthy soil, but a good foundation to build off of…. SO, let us begin!!!
Step one to achieving healthy soil – is knowing the soil requirements for your specific plant. I highly encourage you to do some research about your plant. Spending those 10 minutes learning where your plant is from, preferred habitat etc. provides key information for determining the best soil mixture to use for your plant.
Here is an example on why the research is important: Let’s say you have two plants: a cactus and a fern. Cacti are predominantly found in dry-arid desert regions, where the substrate is often on the sandier side (low in organic content). While ferns often grow in understory and swampier regions (meaning high water retaining soil and high organic content). The cacti and fern are very much opposites, right? So, if you place your cacti in the soil mixture meant for the fern or vice versa – you will likely have two unhappy-dying plants.
Thankfully, it is often not that extreme - and for most tropical houseplants, like aroids, basic houseplant soil (sold at your local plant nursery) + some added perlite or orchid bark, for aeration and increased draining, should do the trick. Personally, I tend to get one basic houseplant soil and add different components to it, depending on the plant, that way you don’t need several different potting mixes. DO NOT use soil meant for outdoor gardens or outdoor planters – this soil tends to have high moisture retention, and is manufactured with outdoor plants in mind. DO NOT use soil from your backyard or outside – this soil is likely more nutrient poor and has the potential to have pests and pest eggs galore! YUCK!
The next thing to consider when trying to achieve healthy soil is making sure you have soil nutrients; Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium (NPK). If you are just potting-up a plant in fresh soil mix – do not add any nutrients – most soil mixes have enough nutrients to support your plant for about 6-12 months, depending on the plant. However, if your plant has been living in the same soil for a year plus, your plant has likely exhausted the easily extractable nutrients and you will have to add in more.
When adding in nutrients – LESS is MORE! If you do not take anything else away from this, please, please, do not douse your plant in fertilizer. Each plant will react differently to fertilizers, some tolerate a ton, some do not tolerate any. So just pump the breaks and add in nutrients slowly over time. I highly recommend using an OMRI certified product.
I mentioned aeration when discussing soil mixtures, but I do want to reiterate the aeration piece again – this is such an important component to plant and soil health. Aeration is exactly like it sounds, providing your plant and soil with air. You can do this by either adding in large chunky pieces of (perlite, vermiculite or orchid bark) this prevents the soil from compacting and allows space for air to move. You can also enhance aeration by poking holes into the soil once or twice a month. Providing your soil with air enhances root health, allows proper water saturation, helps nutrient dispersal and keeps the beneficial bacteria happy.
Now – I have saved the best for last – Beneficial microbes! Beneficial microbes help make soil healthy soil. Beneficial microbial organisms are, I would argue, one of the most crucial elements to both plant and soil health. Microbes break down the soil organic matter into more usable components for the plant, microbes help develop a plants immune system, microbes protect the plant from invading plant pathogens, microbes stimulate plant growth, some microbes even kill insect pests – I think you get the point. Beneficial microbes do a world of good for your soil and your plant.
Unfortunately, most soils are sold sterile (meaning, they have no living bacteria present). Sterilizing the soil prevents the spread of plant pathogens and kills potentially invasive plant seeds. This means, in order for your plants to reap the beneficial rewards of microbes, you need to add them in. Yes… your plant could eventually build up its own ideal microbial community – however, I am a huge proponent of helping them out. Luckily, there are some amazing products out there – including Earth Medicine Microbial Fertilizer. Beneficial microbes, like nutrients, do need to be re-applied for optimal results, so just make sure to use the product according to manufacturer's instructions.
Any changes you make to your current plants soil, try to do this slowly and with patience. Plants get stressed too, and major changes, even if they are for the better, will cause your plant to react - sometimes losing a leaf or two - however, the plant will be happier in the long run.
If you enjoyed reading about soil and the cool microbes that live in it, or have any questions regarding healthy soil– feel free to message me on Instagram @plantedpaintedpotted
Guest post: Alexi Van Ess – PhD Candidate studying microbial interactions in the soil.