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Soil Nutrition: plants and techniques that replenish naturally

30 Aug 2017

Fertile soil is fundamental to the growth of healthy plants. Soil in itself is a complex living system that works to provide structure, minerals and nutrient enriching organic matter to plant roots. Without good soil we cannot produce the nutrient-rich food we need to keep us healthy.

As a result of factors such as: weather, pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, lack of crop rotation – the world’s soil in many instances, has been leeched of its nutrients, leaving plants vulnerable to disease and pests. Many areas of the world’ssoil are suffering mineral depletion and loss of top soil.

Vital nutrients

  • Nitrogen: A macro-nutrient, nitrogen needs to be consistently replenished. Nitrogen can remain available throughout all growing seasons through crop rotation, the use of compost, and other soil management techniques.
  • Calcium: Calcium plays an important role in a plant’s structure and growth but modern agriculture, erosion, and acid rain can strip this mineral away.
  • Manganese: Vital for photosynthesis and other processes, this micro-nutrient can become depleted when soils are too wet or too high in organic matter.
  • Carbon: This element is critical for living microbes to survive – and is cycled back into the soil through decaying organic matter.


Effective solutions

  • Compost: Forms a binding agent that ensures soil minerals are available for plants to absorb through their roots.Adds structure to the soil, improves drainage, provides a nutritional and healthy environment for plant roots, and helps plants fight off disease and pests. However, this is a long-term process and understanding the soil’scomposition is key, along with consistent action.
  • Bokashi: A method particularly popular in making compost from kitchen scraps. Reliant on effective micro-organisms,bokashi composts can speed up the process of rejuvenation of soil.
  • Crop Rotation: A technique that can prevent further soil depletion and help ensure a lasting healthy soil environment, dramatically increasing yields and preventing crop loss due to pests or disease. The idea is to never plant one crop in the same place two seasons in a row.


Plants that help to rejuvenate the soil

  • Cover crops are used between growing seasons to rejuvenate the soil and can benefit any size farm or garden.
  • These crops prevent erosion and mineral leeching, fix soil nitrogen, increase living organic matter, and control pests,weeds and diseases.
  • Some of their root systems tap deep and source nutrients below, while others spread horizontally and help to keep the topsoil in place.
  • Mustard: Contains high levels of glucosinolate, compounds that are naturally toxic to pests. Quick growth ensures plenty of organic material for enriching the soil.
  • Legumes: Root systems of legumes, deposit fertility building nodes in the soil. They have root nodules that house Bradyrhizobium bacteria which act as nitrogen fixers. The group includes alfalfa, peas, and lupines. With help from bacteria in their roots, legumes capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into compounds that can be used by plants. Studies in experimental plots in Malawi showed that planting legumes between rows increased maize yields by over 100%.
  • Clover: Clover’s dense, low-growth makes it an ideal green mulch when decomposing, which is good for fixing nitrogen into a form available to plant roots. It’s a useful plant for replenishing soil for corn crops.


Fertilizer trees

Fertilizer trees enhance soil health by drawing nitrogen from the air and transferring it to the soil through their roots and leaf litter, replenishing exhausted soils with rich sources of organic nutrients. This is a much cheaper method for farmers than buying fertilizer inputs. Currently, these trees are already significantly increasing production in soil that was low in nitrogen.

  • Acacia trees – fast-growing, they are utilised alongside crops grown by thousands of poor farmers in Southern Africa to improve soil fertility, enabling significantly increased harvest yields.
  • Faidherbia albida trees – fix nitrogen and improve the nitrogen content of the soil. Indigenous to Africa, these trees have deep roots that draw nutrients from far below the surface and store them in the tree's spiky leaves. When the leaves fall, nitrogen is returned to the top layer of the soil for use by crops planted beneath the tree's canopy. It sheds its leaves early in the rainy season when crops are beginning to grow, so it doesn't compete with them for light, nutrients or water.

Water – the root of all life

At Netafim, we are continually producing new ideas and improved technology to meet the challenges of humanity and food, soil and water. Our systems are geared to providing the right moisture in the right quantity and at the right time directly to roots, thus saving the topsoil from the loss of run-off water, as well as preventing the soil from being washed away. Any and all plants that nourish the soil need their own share of precise and pertinent amounts of water. Creating and maintaining healthy crops in the most natural and least damaging way possible is our forte and ongoing research focus, helping farmers to meet their challenges successfully.

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