There are many claims about gypsum in the garden, but how many of them are true?
Used to make sidewalk chalk, plaster of Paris, and sheetrock, gypsum (CaSO4) is a soft mineral (along with silica and other minerals) that coats everything and everyone who attends Burning Man. Before we decide whether or not it is beneficial in the garden, let’s learn a little more about gypsum.
Gypsum, also known as calcium sulfate, is a salt that forms crystals. These crystals are particularly sharp. In Old English, it was known as “spear stone”.
Unlike other salts, gypsum becomes less water soluble as temperatures rise. Gypsum can take a variety of forms and, depending on the presence of other minerals, it can take on many different colors.
Gypsum in the garden
Gypsum is made of calcium and sulfur, two nutrients important to plant health. In the early 1800’s, gypsum was considered such a fertilizer miracle that smugglers battled local authorities in what became known as the Plaster War. At that time, gypsum was also known as sulfate of lime or lime sulfate.
Plants use calcium to maintain cell walls. Calcium in the soil helps build healthy soil structure by binding tiny clay particles into larger clumps called aggregates. Sulfur is an important component of proteins used by plants. As such, gypsum can be beneficial in the garden, but not always.
False claims about gypsum
Like most other quick fixes, many of the claims about gypsum are based in fact, but taken too far.
Applying gypsum unnecessarily can cause leaching of aluminum, iron, lead, manganese, potassium into local lakes, rivers, and underground water stores. It also interferes with the beneficial soil microorganisms responsible for helping plants absorb nutrients. Applying gypsum to sandy soils can slow the transport of copper, phosphorus, and zinc.
Benefits of gypsum
All that being said, there is one situation when gypsum can be helpful in the garden. This only occurs when clay soils contain high levels of salt or, more accurately, sodium. These sodic soils can benefit from gypsum applications, in moderation. High salt levels in clay compound poor drainage, often causing heavy crusts to form. Adding gypsum in this situation allows the calcium to bind to the clay, replacing the salt, which is then leached out of the soil over time through cation exchange. Ultimately, this improves soil structure and drainage and reduces salt levels. Adding gypsum to clay without high sodium levels is a bad idea, as it can make alkaline soils even more alkaline. In most cases, plants need a soil pH of 5.5 to 7.0 to thrive.
Rather than simply adding gypsum because you heard it was a good idea, get your soil tested, determine your soil structure, and mulch everything with coarse wood chips to improve your soil and help your plants grow. If you happen to find a large, fine-grained seam of gypsum, you are in luck. Because that particular form of gypsum is more commonly known as alabaster. Now you know.
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