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Soil cultivation is a practice which is designed to improve the condition of the soil prior to establishing crops or decorative plants. Cultivation is an important step in gardening or farming which can determine whether or not plants will thrive. Some soil needs minimal cultivation before planting, while other soil may need to be worked intensely. Gardeners and farmers determine what type of cultivation the soil needs by examining it, and some also send out samples for soil analysis to learn about the specific composition of the soil.
One of the most common reasons to practice soil cultivation is to address soil which has become compacted. Soils tend to compact naturally over time, but this is bad for plants, as they may have difficulty growing and accessing nutrients. Soil can be quickly and simply loosened by digging to a set depth, as many home gardeners do when preparing vegetable beds, and it can also be plowed or tilled. While the soil is loosened, gardeners can also pull out rocks, sticks, and other materials in the soil which could inhibit the growth of plants.
Soil cultivation can also include adding soil amendments to improve the health of the soil. Compost is a classic and widely used example of a soil amendment, added to the soil with the goal of making it more rich. Other soil amendments can include sand, for plants which like sandy soil, straw or moss to help the soil hold moisture, and fertilizers. It may take several years of building soil up with soil amendments to obtain the desired texture and composition.
People also practice soil cultivation while crops are growing. It is important to make sure that soil is aerated throughout the growing season, and additives such as mulch can be used to protect the soil while crops are growing, in addition to providing protection to the roots of crops. Fertilizers may also be periodically added to the soil during the growing season at key times to encourage plants to thrive.
It is possible to cultivate soil too much. If the soil is pulverized, it tends to become more compact, because it has no structure to support aeration. Over fertilization during soil cultivation can result in runoff of fertilizer, which in addition to being wasteful is also harmful to the environment. Working soil while it is wet may also be harmful, as it can damage the structure of the soil and contribute to compaction.