Give plants a healthy head-start with robust soil

In some locations, it seems the soil is of such poor quality that most plants look permanently sickly, and those that do thrive get nibbled away by deer and rabbits. If that is a dilemma that you have to deal with, today's column should offer you some hope.
A recent column about plants that do well in poor soil brought quite a lot of mail from readers. If you missed that column, send me a message at snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org and I'll send you a link to the archived version at my Web site. Some of the comments were from readers who would rather improve poor soil than cater to it.
What can you do if you have sorry soil that needs to be brought up to snuff? First of all, it makes sense to find out if your soil really is of poor quality. The best way to find an answer is with a soil test. You can purchase your own soil test kit, but if you prefer to leave it to the experts, you can contact the nearest Ag Extension Service, usually associated with a university. If you're not sure where your nearest Extension service is located, you can find a state-by-state list at this Web site http://www.urbanext.uiuc.edu/netlinks/ces.html
So, exactly what IS a soil test? It's a process by which elements, including phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sodium, sulfur, manganese, copper and zinc, are chemically removed from the soil and measured for their "plant available" content within the sample. The quantity of available nutrients in the sample determines the amount of fertilizer that is recommended. A soil test also measures pH, humic matter and exchangeable acidity. These analyses indicate whether lime is needed and, if so, how much to apply, according to a description from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture's Web site.
Why test your soil? Here's a good answer from the Extension Web site of Rutgers University: "To apply optimum levels of nutrients or lime to your soil, it is necessary to know the existing pH and the availability of essential plant nutrients in the soil. Remember: Excess nutrients or limestone can be as detrimental to plant growth as deficiencies of these nutrients."
Adding too much lime can cause the soil pH to rise above the needed level, which in turn prevents much-needed nutrients such as copper, iron, manganese and zinc from reaching the plants' root systems.
Once you have the results of your test, you can take it to your local garden center and ask to see their products that will adjust the soil's quality as needed.
Once your soil is back on track, keeping it healthy is as important to your landscape as a good diet and nutritional supplements are to your own health.
There are several products that I use on my own landscape in order to maintain optimum quality soil. As you know, I opt for organic solutions to garden problems wherever possible, and those are the ones I generally recommend.
A soil conditioner named Prosper was originally intended for farmers who had problems with standing water caused by compacted soil. Then owners of newly-constructed homes began to find it useful where heavy equipment had packed down the soil, making it almost unmanageable. Prosper increases the downward movement of water to, and through, the root zone, making it and oxygen more available to plants. It can also increase drainage and reduce erosion.
Another useful organic product is called Global EarthTek, and is one of those products that seems to do a whole bunch of things at once. It's an effective fungicide, it increases the soil's water-holding capacity (so you spend less time out there with the hose) and it helps to fight disease and virus by fortifying plants' immune system.
As for fending off those unwanted garden visitors, licking their lips at the sight of your newly robust plants, I'll have some tips in the next column!
The Plant Man is here to help. Send your questions about trees, shrubs and landscaping to snipped-for-privacy@landsteward.org for resources and additional information, or to subscribe to Steve's free e-mailed newsletter, visit www.landsteward.org
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