Adding value to your soil

August 8, 2009 at 6:13 pm | Posted in Soil | Leave a comment
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Compost binsOf vital importance in organic gardening and xeriscaping is the addition of copious amounts of organic matter to the soil.  The premise is that to feed the plants, you must feed all the billions of microscopic organisms in the soil first.  Any organic matter will make a difference, and it can take any form, from grass clippings, weeds or mouldy hay or straw to wood shavings and leaves.  However, the smaller the particle size, the quicker it will break down and become useful to the bacteria, earthworms and other microfauna.  If you can run leaves through a shredder or put them in a metal garbage can and run the string trimmer through them a few times, so much the better. 

To make compost, layer any of these organic materials with seaweed (rinsed of salt), kitchen wastes such as potato peelings, rotten apples, lettuce leaves and the like, or any clippings from the garden, and any kind of animal manure except dog or cat.  Some advocate not using any diseased portions such as plants infected with downy mildew but if your compost is built properly it will heat to over 160 degrees F. which will kill any of those pathogens.  The heat is caused by the biological processes of the billions of bacteria, fungi and other tiny soil creatures.  Once the pile is hot, too hot to put your hand in, then you can stir it with a pitchfork to mix up the cooler areas into the middle.  The balance of wet and dry materials is pretty important – you want it moist enough to keep cooking, but not so wet as to make it anaerobic.  You’ll know if it is, because you’ll get a rotten egg smell, so stir and let it dry out a little, or mix in more dry ingredients such as leaves or dry grass clippings.  Add some finished compost from a previous pile, or some soil out of the garden to inoculate the pile with microfauna.  Once the pile has cooled off a little, add some red wiggler earthworms, the ones you’ll find in old manure piles and you’ll never look back. 

Use the finished, or close to finished, compost on established gardens as mulch, or incorporate into a new garden before planting.  The compost can be screened to take out the larger unrotted pieces, which can be returned to the pile for more composting activity.  Once planted, either with vegetables or ornamental plants, use a mulch of bark for ornamental shrubs and perennials, or grass clippings, old hay or straw or wood shavings on vegetable gardens as once the crop is finished, you can dig it in for added organic matter. 

Planting with green manure cover crops is an excellent way to add organic matter fast, and this can be done while the crop is still growing, or after harvesting, depending on the type of crop, type of green manure, and the time of year.  For best results, plant any bed after harvesting with buckwheat which will mature in weeks and can be dug in and planted right away for a second or third crop, depending on how long your growing season is.  At the end of the harvest of potatoes or brassicas or onions, plant fall rye to make a quick cover which can protect the soil over winter, and be planted into in the spring without digging it under as it usually winterkills in colder climates. 

The more variety of organic matter, and the more sources of the organic matter, the better for your soil.  Be patient, as sometimes it takes a couple of years of additions before their true value becomes evident.  Your garden, plants and the microfauna in your soil will thank you!

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