Soil conditioning treatments are quite popular these days. Many gardeners and lawn care enthusiasts understand that the key to healthy plant life is healthy soil, and they use soil conditioners to get it. Yet, many don’t know that they may not be needed and could even lead to more serious problems.
Soil conditioner is worth it to help loosen compacted soils and improve overall soil health to encourage optimal growth in garden beds. However, using soil conditioner on native soil usually is not worth it because it has negative consequences that often outweigh the immediate benefits.
Keep reading if you’re considering a soil conditioner for your lawn or garden. This post will answer many commonly asked questions and cover all the information you need about soil conditioners to help you decide if these treatments are worth it for your soil.
Benefits of Using Soil Conditioners
Soil conditioners alter and improve soil conditions in potted plants for optimal plant growth. However, you should avoid these treatments on native soil. Any nutrients plants leave unutilized will eventually become a source of pollution and result in other negative consequences.
Unfortunately, not all soil conditioning products and services are worthwhile, as they provide dubious benefits at best. While you could find plenty of authoritative literature explaining the benefits that soil conditioners provide for turf grasses and other plant life, much of it is nothing more than a sales pitch cleverly disguised as a scientific conclusion.
Yet, some experts such as Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist and Associate Professor at Washington State University, see through this gimmick and call it out for what it is. She argues that soil conditioning treatments claim to build healthy soil without any substantiated proof.
Consider the following passage from her column, The Myth of Soil Amendments:
“No scientific studies to date show any measurable benefit of soil amendment except in containerized plant production. Plants grown in native soil consistently showed better root establishment and more vigorous growth. Only one study reported no negative effects of amending soil with organic matter – but there were no benefits, either.
“This outdated practice is still required in the specifications of architects, landscapers, and other groups associated with landscape installation. It is still recommended by garden centers and gardening articles. And there is a multi-million dollar soil amendment industry that has little interest in debunking this myth.”
She also explains how soil conditioners eventually become a source of pollution, encouraging all concerned professionals in the green industry to avoid this unsustainable practice.
So, what does this mean for you and your lawn?
Well, it means you must be smart about when and how you use soil conditioners.
You must consider the type of soil you have and your landscape. Also, you must test your soil to determine what is lacking and how unbalanced it is before you apply any amendment. Conditioning your soil is different from feeding your soil, and you can accidentally do more damage than good if you’re not careful.
Factors to Consider Before Application
So, is soil conditioner worth it for you?
Let’s find out!
Use the table below to identify your soil type and see if soil conditioners are the recommended remedy or not:
|Soil Type||Characteristics||Soil Conditioner Needed/Effective?||Recommended Amendment|
|Loamy||No||Add small amounts of fertilizer to depleted soil as needed|
|Sandy||Dependent on what plants are growing||Frequently apply small amounts of fertilizer or compost to replace depleted nutrients required by your specific plants if needed, such as:|
Landscape and Types of Plants
Soil conditioning isn’t ideal for most residential landscapes where turf grasses are grown. The general problem with this is that the original soil compacts when the organic amendment decomposes, which causes lawns to slope away from driveways and other surfaces over time.
Typically, applying further treatments only causes damage to root systems. Instead, it’s less expensive and easier to topdress these types of landscapes.
However, soil conditioning can be helpful for annually planted and harvested soil. These benefits include flower beds and vegetable gardens. The nutrients in the soil deplete naturally over time with use and using soil conditioners to add nutrients back in helps the soil to recover.
Still, you must know what your soil needs before you add amendments, which is why it’s essential to know your soil type and test it before applying conditioners.
Current Health of Your Soil
You should never apply any amendment to your soil without knowing its current condition. Soil test kits are available online or at most garden supply stores and can test your soil to measure its nutrient levels and organic matter content. These results will expose your soil’s needs, and you can choose a soil conditioner accordingly.
Functions and Types of Conditioners
Soil conditioners are any organic or inorganic substances that you use to alter the characteristics of your soil. Typically, gardeners use these amendments to adjust pH levels in unbalanced soil and enhance overall soil health.
Soil conditioners are worth it for many reasons.
These conditioners can improve soil structure and loosen compacted soils, including hardpan and clay. This structure improvement helps increase water retention and aeration and releases nutrients trapped inside the soil, which can significantly impact plant growth and overall health.
They can also provide nutrients to depleted soil. Over time, soil naturally loses its nutrients as plants consume them. This depletion means that acidic soil can become alkaline and vice versa. Depending on your soil needs, conditioners may help correct the imbalance.
A classic sign that your soil is compacted is that it will not absorb water, you can read more about how to tackle that issue in my other article: How to Fix Soil That Doesn’t Absorb Any Water
Organic vs. Inorganic
There are two basic types of soil conditioners—organic and inorganic.
The difference between organic and inorganic soil conditioners is that organic conditioners are considered living, whereas inorganic materials aren’t. You should choose a soil conditioner based on what your soil needs, as each type of conditioner functions for a different purpose.
Organic conditioners (such as peat moss, manure, or compost) are typically additions for enhancing the soil, namely, replacing nutrients and improving water retention.
On the other hand, inorganic materials (crushed limestone or gypsum) generally are used to correct particular problems, such as an altered pH level. For example, various limestone conditioners raise pH and replace calcium in the soil.
Before you decide on an organic or inorganic soil conditioner, you should test your soil to determine its needs. Otherwise, you risk worsening the condition of your soil.
Liquid Conditioners and Aerators
Liquid soil conditioners are available in two basic types: surfactants and humic-based.
Most surfactants are controversial because the active ingredient in most products is Ammonium Laureth Sulfate, which is essentially soap. It breaks up the soil to allow water to penetrate through. And while these chemicals provide some benefits and soften the soil, they can lead to further troubles down the road.
Humic acid is a complex composition of various alkaline soluble acids resulting from decomposed remains of plants. Soil conditioners of this type provide the soil with much-needed nutrients and may be the better choice for your soil. Still, studies at Colorado State determined that chemical soil amendments alone are not an adequate replacement for physical aggregation.
For more information about this, check out this short YouTube video about using liquid aerators on lawns:
Compost and Other Conditioners
Soil conditioners are the same as compost. To be precise, compost is one of many examples of soil conditioners. However, soil conditioners are not the same as topsoil or fertilizer, as these cannot alter soil structure. Compost can provide nutrients and is excellent for conditioning garden soil.
Some more examples of soil conditioners include but certainly aren’t limited to:
- Animal manure
- Cover crop residue
- Leaf Mold
- Peat moss
- Pine bark
- Scoby (use in conjunction with other amendments)
- Wood ash
You shouldn’t consider soil conditioners as the solution to your soil troubles; instead, they should complement other care and maintenance applications. It’s also important to test your soil to determine its needs before applying any soil amendment because you could accidentally do more harm than good.