Improving Your Soil with Organic Matter

At some point in mid- to late spring, many gardeners are disappointed to discover their flowering plants struggling for survival.

The hardest part is that the reasons may not be clear. If you don't know what's wrong, how do you fix the issue?

In our experience, much of the time a failure of flowering plants to thrive and show their beautiful colors is poor soil. The soil may be full of clay or stones, too acidic, compacted, or importantly, it may be lacking in organic matter.

Some homeowners may resort to simply adding commercially prepared fertilizer. But wait – there's a MUCH better way. With a little practice and the right materials - including soil amendments – you really can improve your soil conditions and make your garden gorgeous.

Your Easy Fix: Use Soil Amendments

So just what are soil amendments? These are materials that are mixed into the topsoil to promote healthy plant growth. (Plant food, by the way, is not usually classified as a soil amendment because its primary function is to supply nutrients.)

Soil amendments, such as lime, change the soil pH. Others, such as compost, supply nutrients that are most important as soil conditioners. Adding any organic matter from composted leaves to manure, leads to better air and water movement and plant growth.

Why Use Organic Materials?

Any gardener will tell you: most flowering plants perform best in soils high in organic matter. Enriched with organic materials, soil becomes loose and easy to dig and plant. It's attractive to earth worms, too, and these will proliferate when fed on organic additions. These tunnel through and aerate the soil, and they leave castings that greatly enrich the area.

Some changes will occur immediately, and after a while you will notice a great change in your overall soil when adding organic matter. To make things much easier on yourself and to give your plants the very best, try composting instead. It's very easy to compost, and you can make your garden bloom beautifully for years to come.

Let's Get Growing: How to Make Compost

Composting is the process of organic materials being broken down. This generally takes a couple weeks (though the time may vary) and happens when tiny beneficial microbes, as well as insects such as earthworms, eat through these items and then excrete them. The decomposing result over time is rich, soft, earthy compost.

Creating compost for your garden is very easy. There's one major key to successful compost: know your green versus brown materials, and how much to add of each.

Think of compost as a “meal” for your soil life. But it needs to be a healthy meal. Just as humans can’t live on only french fries, the microbes that cause the composting process can’t only live on one half of their nutrients. They need both green and brown ingredients.

Brown Materials

Brown is the carbon "carbohydrate" energy the compost microbes need to thrive. Without it, your pile of green kitchen scraps will quickly become smelly and slimy. This is because your greens will decompose too quickly through the bacteria already in the materials, rapidly fermenting nitrogen into the rotten-egg smell of ammonia.

You'll want enough brown materials for the good bacteria and microbes to have enough energy to multiply and slow down the release of nitrogen. The layering effect of compost is a natural way to do this.

A few examples of brown materials include:
  • dry yellow or brown leaves and dried grass clippings
  • the woody stalks of plants such as sunflowers and corn
  • paper and wood products, such as sawdust, chopped up twigs and shredded newspaper
  • dryer lint
  • straw wood ash (not too much)

Green Materials

"Green" nitrogen is a protein the munching microbes need to thrive. Too little nitrogen, and your pile will decay into compost a lot more slowly. The microbes will be fewer and weaker, so it could potentially take many months (or even as long as a year) for a mainly brown compost pile to turn into rich compost.

A well-balanced compost of both green and brown materials will be hot due to all those microscopic bodies busily multiplying and feasting for you.

Green materials are soft and often wet, and include:

  • kitchen scraps, such as vegetables, melon rinds, eggshells and fruit (do NOT add meats, poultry or fish, or the bones of these)
  • coffee grounds, paper coffee filters and tea bags
  • fresh green leaves and fresh grass clippings
  • fresh weeds that haven’t seeded (seeds will likely survive the composting process and may take root and grow)
  • manure from vegetarian animals – cows, sheep, chickens, rabbits
  • hair – scatter the hair in the bin, not in clumps

The Proper Ratio of Brown and Green Compost

This is easy to remember - about half and half, layered and mixed in. The actual ratio is more like 1 part green to 2 partS brown, but remember, most garden writers and researchers consider that brown materials have a lot of air and space between them. Small twigs and hay is a lot less compact than kitchen scraps, for example.

A number often mentioned in is 25 to 30 parts brown to 1 part green. This doesn’t mean throwing in a massive amount of browns and only a tiny but of green – instead, it refers to the carbon versus nitrogen content, not the organic matter you actually throw in the compost.

We've never had a problem with practicing half brown and half green.

As you can see, unless you're either a botanist or some form of chemist, deciding upon and achieving exactly the right ratio can be problematic. Instead, we recommend these easy ways to determine that you have the correct ratio:

If your compost feels excessively dry and doesn't seem to be breaking down over a period of several weeks, add more green materials and water. Mix with a stick or pitchfork.

If your compost is excessively wet or if it is smelly, add more brown materials. Mix with a stick or pitchfork.

Compost should be fairly hot in order to correctly feed microbes. This is a symbiotic relationship: the activity of the microbes and insects causes the materials to heat up, while the heat encourages their health and growth. If you're not sure your compost pile is warm enough, invest in a sturdy compost thermometer and check once or twice a week.

Be sure to add a bit of water once a week (do NOT soak) and turn over with a long stick or a garden pitchfork. You'll know your compost is done when it's rich, dark, not too wet and crumbles gently in your hands, like garden dirt.

Simply sprinkle compost onto your garden near plant roots or GENTLY stir up a bit of earth slightly away from the root circumference in the dirt, add a handful or two of compost. Keep doing this throughout the season, especially during planting.

Enjoy the beautiful results, and happy gardening!

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