Various organic, natural and inert soil amendments.
The most common use of soil conditioners is to improve soil structure. Soils tend to become compacted over time. Soil compaction impedes root growth, decreasing the ability of plants to take up nutrients and water. Soil conditioners can add more loft and texture to keep the soil loose.
For centuries people have been adding things to poor soils to improve their ability to support healthy plant growth. Some of these materials, such as compost, clay and peat, are still used extensively today. Many soil amendments also add nutrients such as carbon and nitrogen, as well as beneficial bacteria. Additional nutrients, such as calcium, magnesium and phosphorus, may be augmented by amendments as well. This enriches the soil, allowing plants to grow bigger and stronger.
Soil amendments can also greatly increase the cation exchange capacity of soils. Soils act as the storehouses of plant nutrients. The relative ability of soils to store one particular group of nutrients, the cations, is referred to as cation exchange capacity or CEC. The most common soil cations are: calcium, magnesium, potassium, ammonium, hydrogen, and sodium. The total number of cations a soil can hold, its total negative charge, is the soil’s cation exchange capacity. The higher the CEC, the higher the negative charge and the more cations that can be held and exchanged with plant roots, providing them with the nutrition they require.
Soil conditioners may be used to improve water retention in dry, coarse soils which are not holding water well. The addition of organic material for instance can greatly improve the water retention abilities of sandy soils and they can be added to adjust the pH of the soil to meet the needs of specific plants or to make highly acidic or alkaline soils more usable. The possibility of using other materials to assume the role of composts and clays in improving the soil was investigated on a scientific basis earlier in the 20th century, and the term soil conditioning was coined. The criteria by which such materials are judged most often remains their cost effectiveness, their ability to increase soil moisture for longer periods, stimulate microbiological activity, increase nutrient levels and improve plant survival rates. The first synthetic soil conditioners were introduced in the 1950s, when the chemical hydrolysed polyacrylonitrile was the most used. Because of their ability to absorb several hundred times their own weight in water, polyacrylamides and polymethacrylates (also known as hydroabsorbent polymers, superabsorbent polymers or hydrogels) were tested in agriculture, horticulture and landscaping beginning in the 1960s. Interest disappeared when experiments proved them to be phytotoxic due to their high acrylamide monomer residue. Although manufacturing advances later brought the monomer concentration down below the toxic level, scientific literature shows few successes in utilizing these polymers for increasing plant quality or survival. The appearance of a new generation of potentially effective tools in the early 1980s, including hydroabsorbent polymers and copolymers from the propenamide and propenamide-propenoate families opened new perspectives.