There is a complex invisible world beneath your feet and it is necessary to make an effort to develop an appreciation of how the state of the soil affects plant growth.

Soil is a mixture of tiny rock particles, living organisms, chemicals and the remains of dead plants and animals. Spaces between the particles will also contain a certain amount of air and water depending on the type of soil.

Rocks near the earths surface are slowly broken down in nature by a process called weathering. Eventually small particles such as sand, silt and clay are formed. These particles create the environment for billions of mostly tiny organisms to live. Larger organisms such as earthworms and insects are also found in soil. A healthy soil is teeming with life.

The main aim as a hobby farmer is thus to try to improve soil health by good management. Poor management can lead to a loss of fertility and degradation of the soil. In extreme cases the valuable topsoil can also be blown or washed away. In the end poor soils lead to low quality crops lacking in nutrition.

Below are examples of some checks I plan to carry out on my farm with the aim of improving soil fertility.

1) Carry out a pH test in different places. This test will determine if the soil is acid, alkaline or neutral. Most plants prefer a pH level around 6.5. Should the pH level be too (below 6) corrections can be made by adding lime. Should the pH be too high (above 7) this can be lowered by adding plenty of organic matter and mulch. Extremely alkaline soils can be changed by adding ground sulphur.

2) Check the soil texture of the soil by rubbing some moist soil between your fingers. This will help to determine the type of soil present. Sandy soils will have a coarse feel. These soils dry quickly. Adding lots of organic matter will improve sandy soils. Very sandy soil can also be improved by adding clay. If the soil feels sticky when rubbed it contains too much clay. Clay soils drain slowly and are difficult to work when wet. Adding gypsum will help in most cases. Should the soil have a good balance of sand, silt and clay you will be blessed with a loamy soil. These soils are generally easy to manage and do not require treatments.

3) Check the level of organic matter in the soil. This can be done by shaking a handful of soil in a jar and seeing how much organic matter floats to the surface. If only a thin layer is present on the surface, lots of organic matter needs to be added. This means more microorganisms can be sustained, these in turn will release essential health giving chemicals needed by plants.

The above tests are simple to carry out and much information is available on these topics. Further tests require equipment or a soil testing company to analyse the soil. These include salinity, especially if bore water is used. Individual soil nutrient levels for Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Potassium as well as trace element levels can also be measured. Other aspects such as fertilizer application and cultivation practices to maintain soil structure also need attention.

Soil care requires years of experience and looking to older gardeners will give you lots of essential tips. Also, experienced gardeners can often identify soil problems by looking at the general appearance of plants. Getting a spade and digging around will give you information about conditions such as waterlogging and excessive dryness.

Do all you can to look after your soil and allow your plants to carry out the magic task of turning fertilizers and compost into healthy and nutritious food.