Regional Gardening Reports :: National Gardening Association

In the Garden:
Upper South
July, 2004
Regional Report

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Apply compost around perennial plants to provide nutrients and improve soil health.

It's About the Soil

In discussing this column with a friend of mine who is a long-time organic gardener, the first words out of her mouth were, "Tell them it's about the soil." How right she is. Enhancing your soil organically yields both short-term and long-lasting rewards, and it literally supplies the groundwork for the organic gardening lifestyle. The really good news is that no matter where you live, hilltop or valley, or what kind of soil you garden on now, be it rocky clay or seemingly sifting sands, it can be transformed into the stuff of luxurious gardens.

Soil that has been enriched with organic matter and fertilizers becomes easy to dig, plants will be bigger, produce better, and be naturally healthier. Just as people are better able to fight off diseases when they are in excellent health, so plants grown in healthy soil are less susceptible to insects and diseases. Improving the soil with organic materials helps the environment, too. Garden and kitchen waste can be recycled. Healthy soil means less watering as well. Food crops raised on organically enriched soil also contain more nutritious minerals and vitamins and a better balance of proteins.

The best way to start improving your soil is to get to know it personally. Buy -- and read -- a good book about soils so that you'll understand its components. Pick up a handful of your soil and feel it, both when dry and wet. Notice the color and texture. Test the drainage. Check your soil for nutrient levels and pH. All of this is good homework that gives you a sense of soils in general and yours in particular, making you better able to fine tune the soil system in your yard.

The Great Equalizer
The "secret ingredient" for overall soil improvement is the same no matter what your garden situation, however. That ingredient is organic matter, or plants in various stages of decomposition. When plant residues have completely broken down until unrecognizable, that material is called humus. This is the fine, dark material seen on the forest floor just below the twigs and leaves and just above the actual soil.

Worked into the soil, organic matter and humus slowly and steadily supply both major and micronutrients to plants, buffer soil pH, loosen up clay soil, improve the water-holding ability of sandy soil, and provide food for beneficial soil organisms.

The organic material most people are familiar with and use in greatest quantity today is compost, which can be made in your own yard or purchased. Making your own compost has the advantage of being free, and uses up yard wastes. The downside is that it takes work, the process can be slow, and there never seems to be enough. Commercial composts, available either in bulk or by the bag, can help fill the gap. These are usually made from a mixture of materials. Animal manures provide another source of organic material and are availble bagged, in a well-aged form, from garden centers. Green manure is made by seeding an area with a special crop and then tilling it under. Most organic gardeners use a combination of these organic materials in their gardens.

To Begin
If you've never added organic matter to your yard, here are the basics. Remove all existing plant growth and put it on your new compost pile. Spread a 2- to 3-inch layer of organic matter over the area. Next, spread 2.5 pound of rock phosphate and 4 to 5 pounds of greensand per 100 square feet. With a spade, spading fork, or tiller, work these ingredients into the top 6 to 8 inches of soil.

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