Amendments To The (Soil) Constitution

Did you know that fall is the most important season of the year for improving your soil?

You should be adding three things:  finished compost, raw organic matter, and organic nutrients.

Whether you are using your own homemade compost, or are purchasing compost in bags or by the truckload, stock up early with as much as you can afford. I use up a couple of yards of compost each fall (besides what I make in my own bins).

As you remove dead organic matter from your garden, apply at least a 3″ to 4″ layer of compost. While soil temperatures are still warm, the nutrients and organic matter in the compost will stimulate microbes and other beneficial organisms. Tired, end-of-season soil will be refreshed and renewed when spring comes around

Planting new shrubs, trees or other landscape plants?  Mix a few shovels of compost with the soil that goes back into the planting hole.

Raw Organic Matter

The soil in your vegetable garden will probably be laying fallow over the winter months (unless you’re lucky enough to garden year-round). To boost the amount of organic matter in your soil— beyond what you can get from finished compost— consider incorporating raw organic matter directly into the soil.

There’s just one thing to keep in mind when you’re adding raw organic matter to your soil. The beneficial soil organisms that will help decompose this material, require nitrogen to do their work. This means that if you don’t add some additional nitrogen along with the organic matter, the microbes will start using up the nitrogen in your soil. To avoid this, you can either add some nitrogen-rich manure along with the raw organic matter, or sprinkle on some granular organic fertilizer.

Shredded leaves are my top choice for raw organic matter. Use a leaf shredder if you have one. If not, just mow over the leaves several times with your lawnmower.

Animal manures (but not from dogs or cats) are great for the soil. You can gather it in buckets, plastic trash bags, feed bags, or in the back of a pickup truck. A good thing about adding animal manures in the fall, is that it doesn’t really matter if the manure is fresh or aged. Over the winter months, the caustic ammonia will dissipate, leaving behind valuable nutrients and organic matter.

Organic Soil Amendments

Most organic fertilizers release their nutrients slowly over many months, so applying them in the fall helps ensure they’ll be available to your plants next spring. If you can get your hands on some kelp meal,rock phosphate, or bone meal, do so. Because it’s the end of the season, your local garden center may even have some broken bags they’ll be willing to sell you at a discount. You can mix these organic materials right into your garden (or side dress around plants), along with the shredded leaves, manure and compost. Breaking down organic material requires some nitrogen.

If you suspect that your soil pH may need adjusting, autumn is the time to correct it. It’s best to raise or lower soil pH slowly, over a three- to six-month period. Add lime in the fall to raise the pH level of your soil. Add acidifiers like pine needles, peat moss and elemental sulfur if your soil is too alkaline. Remember that unless you already know that your soil is too acidic or too alkaline, you should always do a soil test to determine the pH level before taking corrective measures.

Better Soil — Better Garden

Improving the soil in your garden makes a huge difference in its ability to retain water, support healthy plant growth, and help your plants fend off diseases, pests and other stresses. Whether you’re new to gardening, or a seasoned pro, building better soil is the single most important thing you can do to improve your gardening success. And fall is the best time to do it!

Another Reason To Love Starbucks

Look what I got yesterday for free at Starbucks!  The whole bag went directly into my compost pile, soon to be applied to my garden.

In compost jargon, coffee grounds are a “green,” meaning an item that is rich in nitrogen.  They’re like grass clippings, not leaves or biochar.

Coffee grounds are approximately 1.45% nitrogen. They also contain magnesium, calcium, potassium, and other trace minerals.

There are several ways you can put used coffee grounds to work in your garden:

  • Put coffee grounds in your compost bin. As noted above, they are a valuable source of nitrogen.
  • Add grounds directly to the soil in your garden. You can scratch it into the top couple inches of soil, or just sprinkle the grounds on top and leave it alone.
  • Create a slug and snail barrier. Coffee grounds are both abrasive and acidic, so a barrier of grounds placed near slug-prone plants may just save them from these garden pests.
  • Make coffee ground “tea.” Add two cups of used coffee grounds to a five-gallon bucket of water. Let the “tea” steep for a few hours or overnight. You can use this concoction as a liquid fertilizer for garden and container plants. It also makes a great foliar feed.
  • Add coffee grounds to your worm bin. Worms love coffee grounds! Add some to your worm bin every week or so. Just don’t add too many at once, because the acidity could bother your worms. A cup or so of grounds per week for a small worm bin is perfect.

I’m going back to Starbucks tomorrow for more free grounds.  I drink tea…

Making Biochar For My Garden

What’s biochar? Basically, it’s organic matter that is burned slowly, with a restricted flow of oxygen, and then the fire is stopped when the material reaches the charcoal stage. Unlike tiny tidbits of ash, coarse lumps of charcoal are full of crevices and holes, which help them serve as life rafts to soil microorganisms. The carbon compounds in charcoal form loose chemical bonds with soluble plant nutrients so they are not as readily washed away by rain and irrigation. Biochar alone added to poor soil has little benefit to plants, but when used in combination with compost and organic fertilizers, it can dramatically improve plant growth while helping retain nutrients in the soil.

The idea of biochar comes from the Amazonian rain forests of Brazil, where a civilization thrived for 2,000 years, from about 500 B.C. until Spanish and Portuguese explorers introduced devastating European diseases in the mid-1500s. Using only their hands, sticks and stone axes, Amazonian tribes grew cassava, corn and numerous tree fruits in soil made rich with compost, mulch and smoldered plant matter.

Amazingly, these “dark earths” persist today as a testament to an ancient soil-building method you can use in your garden. Scientists disagree on whether the soils were created on purpose, in order to grow more food, or if they were an accidental byproduct of the biochar and compost generated in day-to-day village life along the banks of the Earth’s biggest river. However they came to be, there is no doubt that Amazonian dark earths (often called terra preta) hold plant nutrients, including nitrogen, phosphorous, calcium and magnesium, much more efficiently than unimproved soil. Even after 500 years of tropical temperatures and rainfall that averages 80 inches a year, the dark earths remain remarkably fertile.

Scientists around the world are working in labs and field trial plots to better understand how biochar works, and to unravel the many mysteries of terra preta. At Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., microbiologists have discovered bacteria in terra preta soils that are similar to strains that are active in hot compost piles. Overall populations of fungi and bacteria are high in terra preta soils, too, but the presence of abundant carbon makes the microorganisms live and reproduce at a slowed pace. The result is a reduction in the turnover rate of organic matter in the soil, so composts and other soil-enriching forms of organic matter last longer.

I’m making my biochar by taking hard-to-compost materials like pruned rose canes and woody materials and burning them in my fire pit.

The recipe is simple. Pile up woody debris in the fire pit. Burn the brush until the smoke thins.  Then damp-down the fire by covering it with about an inch of soil. Let it smolder until the brush is charred, then put the fire out.

Dig the nuggets into your amended soil or add them to your compost pile to cure. Continued application will improve your soil and make it more fertile.

The Compost Post

There is no spot of ground, however arid, bare or ugly, that cannot be tamed into such a state as may give an impression of beauty and delight.
Gertrude Jekyll

Gertrude Jekyll's Glebe House Garden in Connecticut

Did you know that Ms. Jekyll amended her soil to the unbelievable depth of 16 feet? I think it was because she could. And she wasn’t doing the digging!

Unless you have a herd of husky gardeners (sigh!) or the soil in your garden bed is truly unspeakable, I’m here to tell you digging isn’t necessary.  The only thing your garden really needs is compost. And lots of it.

Sometimes digging can actually be detrimental. How can this be, you say?

Organic matter aka compost determines the structure of soil. Organisms continually break down this organic matter adding to the soil’s structure. Macro-organisms are earthworms, insects, slugs and small animals. Micro-organisms are creatures such as protozoa and nematodes. Then there are plant organisms such as roots, bacteria, algae, and fungi. All of these particles work together to create healthy, living soil.

Digging destroys whatever colonies of organisms might live there and destroys the established structure of that soil. Think about how nature builds soil. She builds soil with new layers of organic matter laid down every year. She doesn’t dig. And that’s how you build good soil too.

Digging and tilling also create what is called hardpan, the layer at the depth of your shovel or the tines of your tiller. This layer turns to cement and roots can not penetrate it; nor does water. Shallow soil creates shallow roots that become water-dependent.

Now if you dig down deep enough, hardpan doesn’t matter. I’m sure Ms. Jekyll didn’t worry about it. But for the rest of us, composting is the answer.

When should you put down compost? All the time. Now. You CAN garden in the Winter!

How much should you use? A lot. There’s no such thing as too much compost. I make my own, but it’s never enough. I end up buying bags and bags of mushroom compost at Home Depot.

Not only does it improve your soil, but frequent composting discourages weeds and eliminates the need for organic fertilizers. (I’m assuming you eschew chemical fertilizers. You’re a beekeeper, right?)

You won’t need to use that horrible pine bark mulch, which is bad for your soil anyway.

When the snow melts in Ohio, I’ll be outside, getting a head start on applying my compost. Why don’t you try it this year too?