DATA COLLECTION STRATEGIES FOR BIGGER AND HEALTHIER PLANTS
I believe most gardeners or farmers start their journey of food production through trial and error: observing which conditions work, noting which ones don't, and experimenting with how they can be improved. They begin with one or two potted tomatoes or pepper plants, then a couple of raised beds, then eventually every square inch of usable space on the property.
As we experience success and failure, we eventually start to find ourselves feeling a little more in tune with our environment: gradual climate changes, incoming storms, early signs of season change, insect mating rituals, and possibly even a sensitivity to ambient temperature and relative humidity akin to what our plants would feel. At the very least, we can predict the effects these environmental changes might have on our crops.
This process of learning for me has been an incredible evolution and journey that can't be put into words: this newfound connection to plants have changed my life. However, with all this wonderment and child-like discovery, I quickly caught on to the fact that hard data driven facts and scientific analyses would minimize my failures and bolster my success. After all, agriculture is a physical sport, and I want to conserve my energy and resources so that they can be utilized to their maximum potential.
This blog covers a subject I believe to be a very overlooked, yet incredibly important data collection and analyses process that could help all gardeners, farmers or greenhouse managers: EC, or “electrical conductivity”. Affordable technology, now available through HANNA Instruments, will allow farmers and gardeners to collect and catalog this data with their direct soil conductivity and temperature meter.
WHAT IS ELECTRICAL CONDUCTIVITY AND WHY IS IT IMPORTANT TO ME AND MY PLANTS?
Electrical conductivity is a quick, simple and inexpensive method that farmers and gardeners can use to check the health of their soils. Whereas pH is a good indicator of the balance of available nutrients in your soil, electrical conductivity can be viewed as the quantity of available nutrients in your soil (NOTE: only nutrients that are dissolved in the soil water are “available” for crops to take in).
In the soil, the electrical conductivity (EC) reading shows the level of ability the soil water has to carry an electrical current. The EC levels of the soil water is a good indication of the amount of nutrients available for your crops to absorb. The major and minor nutrients important for plant growth take the form of either cations (positively charged ions) or anions (negatively charged ions). These ions that are dissolved in the soil water carry electrical charge, and thus determine the EC level of your soil, as well as how many nutrients are available for your crops to take in. Knowing your soil's EC allows you to make more educated farming decisions on adding fertilizers to particular crop locations, or rotating of your plots.
This instrument will also let you know if your soil conductivity is too high, which will also cause some issues with normal soil and plant functions such as respiration, decomposition, nitrification and de-nitrification. Conversely, a lack of nutrients in the soil can create plant nutrient deficiency, which could lead to plant disease and susceptibility to certain pests and pathogens.
WHAT FACTORS NEEDS TO BE CONSIDERED WITH ELECTRICAL CONDUCTIVITY
In working with EC, farmers and gardeners will realize that each plant has unique needs in order to be as healthy as possible: the correct ratio of nutrients, the correct temperature of the soil, and the right amount of watering and fertilizer. While it's important that each plant receive the nutrients they need in order to be healthy, having too much of any one nutrient will lead to slower growth, lower yields, and even toxicity problems. To avoid nutrient buildup, plants require their soil to be flushed at every scheduled opportunity. Even this requires proper timing, as flushing too often will leave plants nutrient deficient. Using a direct soil EC meter helps farmers tailor their feeding and flushing schedules to individual plant needs.
Meanwhile, the temperature of soil needs to be regulated so that plants will be incubated, but not overheated. As with nutrients, the temperature requirements vary with each plant: some plants like peppers enjoy a hotter soil, while plants like cucumbers and cannabis enjoy a much lower soil temperature. The soil temperature not only depends on climate, but also watering frequency and the size of the container the plants grow in: more watering leads to lower temperatures, whereas smaller, shallower containers build up heat more quickly.
Finally, plants need certain amounts of watering and fertilizer in order to remain healthy. While it may appear to be common sense to keep plants hydrated, too much watering can lead to mold problems and can weaken plant defense systems. Likewise, an overabundance of fertilizer can also lead to lower yields from unhealthy plants. The amount each plant needs will vary, as crops such as tomatoes will need more water to sustain themselves. This in turn affects how frequently plants need to be watered: tomatoes will need to be tended to more often than plants adapted to drier climates.
All of the aforementioned factors can be observed with tools such as the HI98331: with their ease of use, they can be tested quickly, and thus frequently. The amount of testing done is vital to the health of your plants, as changes that need to be made are best realized sooner than later. Remember, your EC meter will only be able to read conductivity in medium/soil; it cannot distinguish between available and non-available conductiveness. It's up to the farmer or gardener to know what type of plants they are growing, what nutrients are available in the soil, and what type of nutrient concentration they will best thrive in.