Soil Building is the single-most important thing you can do for your garden.
Green Manure is beautiful! It adds a wealth of organic matter! Where you will be planting summer heavy feeders, grow a Vetch, Austrian Peas, Bell beans mixed with oats patch. It is a super soil choice! The legumes take Nitrogen from the air and deposit it on their roots. That’s why you always leave legume roots in the soil when you remove bean and pea plants. Oats have deep roots opening channels down into your soil so nutrients drain down. After your mix is felled and chopped to the size you want it, sprinkle the mix with worm castings and any mineral amendments like green sand or powdered kelp, and turn it all in together at once.
I like what Kathy LaLiberte says: Although it only makes up a small fraction of the soil (normally 5 to 10 percent), organic matter is absolutely essential. It binds together soil particles into porous crumbs or granules which allow air and water to move through the soil. Organic matter also retains moisture (humus holds up to 90 percent of its weight in water), and is able to absorb and store nutrients. Most importantly, organic matter is food for microorganisms and other forms of soil life.
Kitchen scraps, clean garden waste, straw, animal manures are all quality ingredients! If you have visiting predators, no meats, bones, oils, even animal manures. And don’t fertilize with stinky predator-attracting fish emulsions. Compost is simple to make. Layer wet/greens with dry/browns inch after inch. The thinner your layers the faster you get your compost. Yes, you can wait for it to get fine and crumbly, but it’s also good to use it as soon as it decomposes to the point that you can’t tell what’s what anymore. That gives your soil organisms something to chomp on, makes a living soil! Kept moist, it is luscious habitat for worms.
Compost Mix Guide
How much to use depends on many factors including the quality of the compost! Factors are soil, ie sandy or clay, site characteristics like slope or flat lowland, plant selection – heavy feeders or carrots, compost availability. Mature composts can be used in most planting situations without serious concern for precise amounts. God knows plants happily grow in your compost pile!
- Container plants
A 20 to 50 percent soil blend would be the best mixture to use for pots on a deck or patio, since potted plants tend to dry out quickly. A higher percentage of compost helps hold more moisture, decreasing the rate the soil dries. If you have clay pots that wick moisture more easily, use a higher percentage compost to soil blend.
- Vegetable gardens
~ If you use a rototiller, which I hope you aren’t (it destroys soil structure), put one inch of compost on top of the soil and till it to a depth of five inches of soil.
~ If you are using a shovel to incorporate your compost, use one-fifth of an inch of compost for every inch of depth of the shovel. Sprinkle with worm castings and turn them both in at the same time. Cornell University says use 3 inches over the surface worked into the top 3-6 inches of soil! You can see there are varying thinkings. Research shows ideal soil contains 5% organic matter by weight, 10% by volume. That’s your basic guide. More than that and plants can actually have problems as well as unused ‘nutrients’ polluting our water!
Coffee Grounds Caution As they decompose, coffee grounds appear to suppress some common fungal rots and wilts, including FUSARIUM! But go VERY LIGHTLY on the coffee grounds. Too much can kill your plants. In studies, what worked well was coffee grounds part of a compost mix, was in one case comprising as little as 0.5 percent of the material. That’s only 1/2 a percent! More details and Study results adapted from the Washington State U report!
Worm Castings are not nutrients, but they do cause seeds to germinate more quickly, seedlings to grow faster, leaves grow bigger, more flowers, fruits or vegetables are produced! Vermicompost suppresses several diseases on cucumbers, radishes, strawberries, grapes, tomatoes and peppers, according to research from Ohio State extension entomologist Clive Edwards. It also significantly reduced parasitic nematodes, aphids, mealy bugs and mites. These effects are greatest when a smaller amount of vermicompost is used—just 10-40% of the total volume of the plant growth medium is all that is needed, 25% is ideal!
Turning soil? Less is best, don’t break up the clods except as needed. Exposing tiny soil organisms kills them. Mycorrhizal fungi networks are destroyed. Some turning is good, especially if you are incorporating amendments. It aerates your soil, loosens it for crops that need it, like carrots and potatoes. Digging deep is not necessary. Annuals generally grow in the top 6 to 8 inches. Rototilling is brutal. It destroys soil structure and compacts soil where it hits bottom. Shovels are great. Spade forks are for loosening soil without turning it. Push it in, rock it back and forth. Pour properly made
Garden Teas – compost, worm castings, manure teas, down the holes made by the tines. The organisms added immediately get to work, make your soil rich and alive! Your well fed plants will take off!
Soil Air Healthy soil is about 25 percent air! Insects microbes, earthworms and soil life need that air to live. The air in soil is also an important source of the atmospheric nitrogen that plants use. Fine clay, tiny spaces, no air, your soil suffocates. Sandy soil with too much air can cause your organic matter to decompose too quickly. Add plenty of organic matter, don’t step in the growing beds or compact the soil with heavy equipment. Never work the soil when it is very wet.
Keep it moist! Dry soil is dead soil. Soil organisms, the bacteria and fungi, protozoa and nematodes, mites, springtails, earthworms and other tiny creatures can’t do their jobs. Their excretions help to bind soil particles into the small aggregates that make a soil loose and crumbly. It’s our job to keep them happy! About 25 percent water with a combination of large and small pore spaces is perfect! Organic matter is their food, and it absorbs water and retains it until it is needed by plant roots.
Soil Tests! When in doubt, don’t add anything to your soil. Get a test. Go to your local Cooperative Extension University office. Or online find a reputable testing firm ~ Woods End Soil Labs , A & L Agricultural Labs, or Green Gems might do it for you. Your soil may surprise you. Sometimes something is missing, other times there is too much. Maybe you need to change an alkaline/acidic condition.
Feed your garden; it feeds you!