Interesting as Dirt: Good soil makes better habitat.

accd1d30-b116-47dc-b8be-c7228c964ce0 If you’ve heard certain dull pursuits described as “interesting as dirt,” you know that soil doesn’t get much respect.  But there’s a lot going on below the surface that is essential to plants.  If you want highly productive habitat, seed is certainly important - but the very soil beneath your feet is the first priority. 
Dirt is a mystery – hold it your hands, stare it in the eyes and it still yields few clues to what’s happening inside.  Nutrients and the chemistry of your soil, however, combine to create successful vegetative cover (or not).  Sounds complicated and it is, but there’s a few dirty tricks, so to speak, to make habitat projects more successful.

While soils vary widely across the country, the only important ones for you are those on your recreational land. Figuring that out is as easy as visiting your local USDA office, consulting the soil maps and getting a general primer from a technician on how your soils should perform and what they may require. You’ll likely have several soil types that require different agricultural inputs. 
Soil type will give you direction, but how will you know the exact needs?  Simple soil tests, for each field you are planting, will guide your way.  Soil tests are performed by local USDA offices, co-ops and crop specialists, or by you with a DIY kit.  Their small cost is erased by what you save in efficient application of fertilizers and resulting lush vegetation.
Unless you live in the south, its winter now and soil sampling is difficult -- but make plans for spring.   Once the ground thaws, jump on your ATV and sample each field you’ll plant.  Take 15 subsamples per acre at 6 inches depth with a soil probe or spade and mix together.  Pull an average sample for each field, send them off and await results. You’ll learn soil pH (hydrogen ion level), phosphorus (P) and potassium (K), with nitrogen (N) recommendations and perhaps other nutrients like calcium and zinc and organic matter.
Throwing on more fertilizer isn’t always the answer if plant performance is poor. Adjusting the pH of your soil is often a simple way to improve plant performance.  Low soil pH (more acidic, common in Midwest, East and Southern US) may make nutrients unavailable.  Correcting that (sweetening your soil) by adding lime will bring up pH over time.  If soil pH is too high (alkaline soils, common in the West) sulfur can bring the pH down.  Bringing pH into an optimal range from 6.0 to 6.5 from either direction makes fertilizers and soil organic nutrients more accessible to plants.
The three primary numbers on your fertilizer bag are essential nutrients (N, P, &K) for plants, though others are also important.  Nitrogen (N) spurs plant growth, improves forage quality and determines protein levels.  Phosphorus (P) is important for seed production and potassium (K) helps in water uptake, root growth and many other functions.  All of these nutrients interact with each other, micronutrients, and soil pH to determine the welfare of your plants. 
Dirt is a pretty dusty topic, alright, but worth real money.  How you fertilize should depend on your planting and what soil testing tells you.  That basic knowledge, with crop rotation planning (legumes that add N to the soil), and a simple schedule of soil amendments, can save you hundreds of dollars each year through efficiency – applying only what is needed and making all of it available for your plants.  
By Jim Wooley, Pheasants Forever senior wildlife biologist (emeritus)

Photo By Logan Hinners, Pheasants Forever senior graphic designer