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Safj Sa Fruit Journal Cri Healthy Soil Featured
October / November 2023

How can soil be healthy?

SA Fruit Journal: October / November 2023

It makes sense for producers to seek and maintain soil health. Let's explore how. By Pieter Raath (CRI) and Larne Auerswald (Labserve)

The UN Agency's Intergovernmental Technical Group on Soils (ITPS) defined healthy soil as "the ability to sustain productivity, diversity, and environmental services of terrestrial ecosystems" (Isonio, 2021). If, in an orchard context, soil health constitutes the ability of soil to ensure the sustained successful production of a crop, then it is something that producers must seek and maintain.

A populistic view is that soil health is associated with the preservation and enhancement of so-called useful microbes in the soil and that conditions must be created to promote the proliferation of these microbes. However, the chemical and physical characteristics of the soil (rather than its organic matter and biology per se) mostly determine its ability to ensure successful production of a crop.

In pursuit of soil health as defined above, the focus should firstly be on proper soil preparation that focuses on ensuring and maintaining a balanced soil chemical status and good physical attributes, i.e., a chemically homogenous, well aerated soil that is free from physical restrictions. Any soil characteristic that reduces aeration, e.g., compaction or wetness, will reduce the soil biological activity, and more so, the plant root activity. Healthy, adequately fertilised, properly managed trees in well-aerated (not over-irrigated) soil will have healthy roots that create and maintain their own rhizosphere microbial populations. Active growing roots exude organic compounds (exudates) into the soil. These compounds are a food source for micro-organisms, raising their number up to 500 times higher than in the rest of the soil (McLaughlin et al., 2000).

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