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Effects of Cultivation on Soil Structure

Date posted: 10 March 2016

The darker layer which can be seen at the beginning of the soil surface is referred to as organic matter, and this acts as a ‘glue’ to bind the soil particles together into aggregates.

These aggregates are the structured blocks which when combined, allow roots to grow and the movement of nutrients such as water and air.

Therefore, well-structured soil is usually rich in organic matter and this is especially the case with loamy textured soils. Also, on land which has had a productive pasture phase over a long period will also benefit from an improvement in both soil structure and organic content as this tends to increase under pasture.

The importance of soil structure

Soil structure can be referred to as the plumbing system for soil as it controls the movement of both air and water flow through it. It also provides a perfect environment for germinating seeds, roots and soil fauna to thrive in while having a direct impact on the land use on the environment.  Well-structured soil should reap the benefits of healthy plants and crops while a poorly structured soil will have a direct impact on the life span of what you plant.

Soil structures change depending on seasonal weather and recent research at Cranfield University at Silsoe shows that soils deterioration during cultivation over a season is down to texture. This would suggest that texture is just an important as organic matter.

What happens when you cultivate soil?

When you cultivate soil with a ground tiller or rotavator, the soil aggregates are broken up and the soil becomes aerated. This turns the soil into fine tilth which is an ideal environment for seeds to germinate. However, it also causes nitrogen to become released which is okay if you are cultivating before planting a new crop in the Spring but not so ideal if you are in digging in the Autumn as this can negatively affect the overall quality of the plants during this time as it is close to winter. This is because the soil organic matter becomes exposed to the atmosphere, and this helps to speed up the breakdown of it which is harmful to the soil structure. However, when it is not overdone and completed at the right time of the year, then the benefits include the improvement of soil structure due to the alleviating of soil compaction and also the added benefits of improved rain penetration, thus helping with deep root development.

When to cultivate?

Different soil types benefit from being cultivated at different types of the year and to ensure that soil structure is preserved, it is always best to cultivate as little as possible and never when the soil is wet.

Clay Soil 

If you have clay soil, then the soil structures are more tightly formed and less likely to be broken apart and to slump. Therefore, it is best to cultivate during the Autumn months as the natural processes of freezing and thawing of the topsoil can help soils to recover and therefore improve its structure. However, this should not be done if the soil is either claggy or wet.

Light, Sandy Soil

With light sandy or silty soils, these tend to have less well-defined structures and are therefore more likely to clump so although you can carry out cultivation between autumn and the spring months, it is nearly always best to carry this out in the spring as long as the soil is not frozen or water logged. This is because any digging in the soil leads to a loss of moisture which you would want to retain during this period until the warmer spring weather arrives.

Advantage and Disadvantages of Soil Cultivation

There are some benefits with soil cultivation as long as it’s done correctly and it does not cause as many problems as it solves. Some of the advantages include:

  • Effective weed control and getting rid of soil pests.
  • Encourages the activity of soil organisms.
  • Improvement in soil aeration (nitrogen and oxygen).
  • Reduce soil compaction.
  • Improvement in stronger root growth and encourage seed germination.

There are also a number of issues from excessive cultivation and these disadvantages can include:

  • Breakdown of soil structure which makes them more prone to erosion.
  • Excessive cultivation or cultivating in the wrong conditions can encourage clumping which leads to soil compaction and a reduction of deep root germination.
  • Potential dilution of organic matter where top soil is mixed with sub soil.

Which Cultivator do I need?

Depending on the size of your allotment, vegetable patch or garden will determine which rotavator/tiller is most suited for the job.

If you are looking to cultivate a smaller sized vegetable patch or possibly flower beds or boarder areas, then the light duty cultivator would be most suited to this job. It is not only light and maneuverable but has a powerful Honda engine which can easily dig up to 20cm (8 inches) and work on gradient slopes up to 20 degrees. It also encompasses a  front transportation wheel which makes it very easy to get the tiler into position when dealing with those smaller areas in need of cultivating.

For larger allotments and gardens, then the tough and durable medium duty cultivator with it is 9 horse power Honda engine would make light work of all ground conditions and environments.  With an ability to dig up to a maximum depth of 20cm (8 inches) of tilth, this rotavator is fitted with between 16 – 20 tines depending on configuration and has a working width of 26 inches.It is also easy to use with it is forward and reserve gear and can fit through standard gates and walkways.

For large scale garden or allotment cultivation then the heavy duty rotavator is a favoured choice for any professional landscaper. With it is 13bp petrol engine, this machine is ideal for rotavating in almost any soil condition including virgin or hardpacked compacted soil and has the ability to have separate variable speeds for both the forward motion and the tines thus allowing the tines to operate separately from the rest of the machine.

Related Articles

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How to Use a Rotavator

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