This is how you make sure that your dirt doesn’t harm your plants

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About 4.5 billion years ago, a pile of dust from stars clumped together to form a molten sphere: the earth. Since then, the planet’s surface has cooled, shifted, spiked, and eroded. Life came and developed, countless generations lived, died and returned to earth. This rich history created the dirt in your garden and the soil in your planters.

The past is key to the future of your mainland. Volcanic rocks like perlite and pumice prevent the soil from packing up. The decomposing remains of plants and animals add nutrients. Silica makes up the majority of most soils in the form of sand and clay. And of course people have irreversibly changed the soil on which we stand, sometimes with disastrous results.

The present is also important, but having your back yard probably won’t change the geological course of the planet. Even so, there are still a few ways even small floor care workers can make sure they are not causing any real damage.

Test your floor

Before adding any purchased fertilizer, aspirin, urine, or anything else to your soil, you should send the soil in for testing. The results will influence your nutrient compensation decisions. Animal manure, for example, can be slightly alkaline. So, if you live in a place that already has alkaline soil and your plants don’t prefer that pH, you can choose another option.

In the US, learn more about your soil through the country’s best kept secret: advisory services. Almost every land grant university has one. Advisory offices are a group of experts who specialize in applying scientific knowledge to practical situations – often in agriculture, but also more at home, such as soil surveys. Check with your local advisory service to see if they have a soil testing laboratory – a facility that can test factors like pH, plant nutrients, salinity, organic matter, and even lead contamination.

Add fertilizer – or not

Artificial fertilizers are energy-intensive in the manufacture and production of laughing gas, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more effective than carbon dioxide at capturing heat. When it rains, these nutrients can be washed out of the soil into bodies of water, where they sometimes form poisonous algal blooms. The flowers also soak up oxygen, creating dead zones where other marine organisms cannot survive. Fertilizers have enabled modern agriculture to feed billions more people than they otherwise could, but you probably don’t need one for your garden to thrive, especially if you use natural fertilizers like horse manure.

[Related: Compost can help protect us from food poisoning]

Megan Balks, a soil and environmental scientist who runs a New Zealand survey company called Earthbrooke Views and works as a research assistant at the University of Waikato, suggests finding pea straw because legumes naturally take up and store nitrogen. If you decide you need chemicals, adjust the amount added based on the results of your soil tests so you don’t add too much. For example, if the soil is too acidic, you can add limestone to make it more alkaline. The native plants in your area are adapted to your area so they are less likely to need fertilizer.

Buy potting soil

While digging some soil out of your yard and throwing it in a pot seems like the easiest, most environmentally friendly option, it doesn’t work as well in practice. The dirt from your yard is heavy and can cause drainage problems as it packs itself tightly in pots. The simplest solution is to buy potting soil, the mineral makeup of which is listed on the bag. The contents are likely made up mostly of organic matter – recently living organisms that are now decaying. This works well for container horticulture, says Stephanie Murphy, who heads the soil test laboratory at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station at Rutgers University. You’ll need to replace the soil at least every few years, but most houseplant owners already do.

If you want to avoid the carbon footprint of a truck hauling your store-bought soil from an indefinite distance, you can see if your city has a composting program. You can also make your own. When potting your plant, you can add a light volcanic rock like perlite or pumice stone for better drainage, especially for plants like succulents that prefer drier soils. But if you let your soil dry out completely, it becomes hydrophobic, Murphy says. You have seen parched soil if ever water has pooled around the base of your houseplants rather than penetrating to the roots.

While most of the ingredients in potting soil take negligible toll on the planet’s ecosystems, peat is a problem. Peat is a collection of peat moss and other organic matter that grows in wetlands. It’s a perfect growing medium for many plants as it retains moisture and oxygen without getting drenched. But the environmental cost is so severe that organizations like the London Horticultural Society are now avoiding it. Although peat bogs make up less than 4 percent of the land surface, they store 42 percent of soil carbon, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Harvesting peat removes the world’s best carbon sink, and that’s just not a sustainable way of maintaining your garden or houseplants.

In the short term, testing your soil and researching the nutrients you need will take more work. But hopefully taking good care of the parts of the earth in your care means a better future for your little part of the planet.

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