A soil conditioner is a substance that can be added to soil to change the soil properties.
We carve out this definition to provide distinction and clarity for our customers. In today's “fast green” world we see an overabundance of fertilizers and a heavy focus on the chemical inputs, but we often ignore the other two categories of soil amendments. At Southland Organics we distinctly divide soil amendments into three categories;
Fertilizers - be it organic or synthetic a fertilizer is a soil amendment that provides adds nutrients. The primary nutrients that fertilizers add are nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. These are also called macro-nutrients. There are 72 trace elements or "micro-nutrients" that fertilizers can add as well.
Soil inoculants - are soil amendments that add biology to the soil to improve the soil food web. Often these focus on bacteria or fungi but can also include beneficial nematodes and other biology that play vital roles in the carbon cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_cycle) or nitrogen cycle (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nitrogen_cycle). Soil biology plays a tremendous role in a healthy environment.
Soil conditioners - enhance soil properties and are often called soil enhancer. These products do alter the soil structure, but that is only part of the effect. Soil properties include many areas such as cation exchange capacity, soil ph, water holding capacity, or soil compaction.
In classifying a soil amendment, we primarily evaluate the product based on its impact. Does the product provide nutrients? If so then it is a fertilizer. Does the product deliver biology to the soil? If so then it is an inoculant. If the product does not provide any of nutrients or biology but is deemed as beneficial for plant life then by default, it is a soil conditioner. Many soil amendments take on aspects of a fertilizer, inoculant and or a conditioner but their objective should be clearly defined.
Soil enhancers also add nutrients to the soil but do not guarantee the value of the macronutrients. In the United States, the difference can often be government registration. Many organic products provide great soil conditioning and enhancing properties such as added water retention and beneficial microorganisms but provide small fertilizer requirements. These organic materials provide excellent value to plant roots and improve clay soils.
Soil conditioners and soil enhancers repair damaged soil and help maintain the soil quality for plant life. Over time the soil will become compacted and have less air space for roots to function. Soil conditioners help to loosen compacted soils as well as replenish and maintain nutrients for the plants to flourish. For the best result, it is essential to mix the soil and the soil conditioner before planting. Though some soil conditioners do work better when placed on top of the soil after planting the crop.
Soil enhancers may consist of organic matters from many sources including organic compost. These would be the plant and animal remains that are in various stages of decomposition, typically referred to as compost. When compost is added to the existing soil, it begins decomposing and provides an additional rich food source for the microorganisms in the soil. The microbes eat the plant and animal remains and eventually die, thus adding themselves to the organic composition of the soil. The end product of this cycle is Humus, which is dark brown or black and will not decompose any further. Humus is vital to the condition of the soil because it readily chelates soil nutrients and dramatically increases the water holding capacity. By providing organic matter as a soil conditioner, we are helping the plants sustain a healthy life. When the soil becomes depleted of organic matter and water tends to drain, and the biology is less prolific. Therefore the plants have a harder time sustaining life.
The soil’s ability to hold and release various elements and compounds that plants need for nutrition is through a process called Cation Exchange Capacity (CEC). Soil Conditioners are used to balance out the Cation Exchange Capacity within the different types of soil. Because there are various types of soil, there are multiple levels of the CEC within each of these different types. Soil conditioners will bind together the atoms plants need to grow. They are also able to release the different nutrients at the time when the plant needs them the most. The property of the soil is ultimately changed through the soil conditioner to be the perfect state that a plant needs to grow.