The emperor's new clothes

The English language is difficult to learn. There are so many words that sound the same but have different meanings, it's confusing. As such, a lot of words are commonly misused, even by prominent orators who should know better. One of my biggest pet peeves is hearing the word "nuclear" pronounced nu-ku-ler. I often hear it pronounced that way by members of the press and even some of our political leaders. Doesn't anybody ever tell them they are mispronouncing it? I guess it's one of those "The emperor's new clothes" things. I remember hearing a few priceless mispronunciations from people of my grandfather's era, too. They would use "gulf" in place of "golf" and "Nassau" to refer to NASA (the space agency). I never corrected them, either. Maybe it's just a local phenomenon that occurs in geographical pockets. One that I used to hear a lot in New England is "loom" in place of "loam" from those referring to soil type. Speaking of soil, it is the focus of this isss-you.

Humus is organic matter that has decomposed as much as it practically can. Don't confuse humus with hummus, the chickpea dip concoction. Humus is what is left after the organic decomposition process is over. It makes up the organic component in soil. Because it is formed from a wide range of plant material, it is a variable mixture of complex materials, not a single material. Humus does wonders for plant growth. Its colloidal properties give humus a high nutrient-adsorption capacity. Humus retains nutrient cations that plants need to grow. It also improves soil's water-holding capacity and encourages granulation. One of the most exciting aspects of humus's effect on plants is its biostimulating properties. Scientists have learned that humic acid has a unique effect on the plant auxin indoleacetic acid (IAA), the promoter of cell enlargement. Humic acid actually protects the IAA from destruction by enzymes in the plant. By doing so, more IAA is available in the plant to stimulate growth.

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Humic acid is not the only biostimulant on the market. There are a slew of them from which you can choose. Some have been marketing these products without gathering scientific input as to how and if they work. This leads us to an important question: Which ones work and which ones don't? Drs. Xunzhong Zhang and Richard Schmidt, researchers at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, discuss some of their research findings to help you answer this question on page 14.

Hum(m)us isn't the only thing you'll find in soil. There are nutrients that plants need to sustain themselves. The only way you can know for sure if soil nutrient levels are sufficient is to conduct a soil test. But taking a sample and submitting it for testing isn't going to mean much to you if you have trouble interpreting the soil-test report. To help make this task easier for you, see "How to: Interpret a soil-test report" on page 27.

A soil test tells you about the chemical properties of soil, but you can't forget about your soil's physical properties. Soil screeners and blenders are indispensable tools for making up the soil that fits your prescription. See "Equipment options: Soil screeners and blenders" for an overview of these products on page 24.

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