Showing posts with label soil. Show all posts
Showing posts with label soil. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Soil Health - the Cornerstone of Life

Beginner Gardeners have come to my attention.  Many do not know where to begin, but they know they want to begin. A friend bought a few acres with the plans to 'garden'.  She also is raising chickens.  While I was reducing our garden beds, I potted up extra plants and gave them to her.  But the focus has been on the plants, and I'd be amiss if I do not give her some other information that will make a world of difference in her new garden.

That information is how, and why the soil is so critical to, not only her garden, but to the environment, and, as far as that goes, the planet. Here is why.

Millions, and billions of microorganisms reside in healthy soil.  The eat organic material, and the enzymes they excrete allow the roots of plants to take up nutrients as needed.  The problem I see as an organic gardener is the media blitzes proclaiming the praises of chemical fertilizers (Specifically, liquid fertilizers). Advertisers do not tell of the harmful effects on the soil.  Chemicals kill microbes and leaves the soil dead. Synthetic fertilizers will feed the roots of plants while it is liquid. However, the soil cannot retain nutrients, so more and more applications of synthetic fertilizers are needed to keep lawns or gardens growing. No amount of chemicals can make up for the benefits of good organic material re-introduced into the soil.

Soil structure that is less than optimal can prohibit roots from taking up moisture and nutrients. Also,sandy soil is so porous that water runs through it rapidly.  So fast that roots have minimal time to take advantage of the moisture.  Clay soils, on the other hand, are so dense, that air and water cannot get down into the roots, thereby suffocating them.

By adding compost to sandy soil, moisture is slowly moved through enabling roots to stay moist longer.  Compost added to clay soil open up the pores and allows air and water to move through the soil.  The diagram above indicates that air and water are vital to good soil, and as little as 5% organic matter can make a weak soil into a healthy base.

The term 'friable' may be used in this instance.  Making the soil crumble-able.  Good organic soil will do this easily.

Nature has a way of building rich organic soil.  The forest is a good example of allowing debris such as leaves, bark, and microbes to return to the earth as organic matter.  This decomposing is Nature at her best. Mimicking Nature is the best way to return to a way of living that many have forsaken.

Adding compost to the lawn and garden will go a long way to reestablishing the balance that nature intended.

Healthy soil improves water-holding capacity reducing runoff of surface water and drawing moisture down. 

These roots indicate that air and water are deep into the soil making for a more robust plant.

Organic soil can maximize plant growth by giving the microorganisms in the soil food.  They decompose the organic matter and return available nutrients to the plants.  Plants thrive and provide food, lodging, and oxygen to the world above.

The message I've tried to convey today is that we need to feed the soil, not the plant.  Healthy soil will take care of the plant's needs IF we take care of the soil. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mulch–Choices that Affect the Soil

Mulch is a covering put on gardens and landscape that can benefit the soil. Mulch can be organic material.  Mulch can be inorganic material.  mulch can make a garden look finished.
   Mulch can also make gardening easier.  Mulch can save water.  Mulch can smother grasses and weeds in the garden.  Mulch can keep weed seed from germinating. Mulch can keep soil temperatures stable.  Mulch can reduce and prevent erosion.  Mulch can add organic material to the soil.  Mulch can keep soil borne diseases from splashing onto foliage.

This graphic is one of my favorites when mulch is being discussed.  The benefits of mulch being applied to the garden are many.  The materials that are used as mulch also are many.  Let’s take a look at some of the good choices for mulch 

Wood chips,and  wood bark are probably the most used mulches used in landscaping.  The wood make the landscape looked well groomed, and has all of the benefits of any mulch choices.  The size of the wood chips can be fine grind or course grind.  The larger nuggets tend to move around in the garden, especially if there are hard downpours of rain.  Smaller chips will decompose faster than larger pieces, and will need to be replaced more often.
One of my favorite mulches is pine needles.  Many of our gardening friends in the South US have unlimited supplies of pine needles.  But those of us in the North have to buy bales of pine needless to spread in our gardens.  Pine needles are ‘slightly’ acidic and are slow to decompose.
The acidic nature of pine needles benefits plants that need a low pH to grow.  pH below 7 is considered acidic, and azaleas, rhododendron, and holly need acid soil to thrive.  In fact, most plants, including food crops like a pH in the 6 – 7 range on the pH scale as slightly acidic.
Other mulch choices include straw, grass clippings, and cocoa shells.  I really like cocoa shell mulch.  It is dark, decomposes slowly, and – guess what! – it smells wonderful.
cocoa mulch


When using grass clippings to mulch, especially food crops gardens, be sure they are herbicide-free to reduce contamination of the food you are growing.
For many years I have used newspapers as mulch.  This helped reduce landfill contributions of tons of paper. When 5-6 layers are put on grass or weeds, it is a successful in smothering them and makes the area ready to plant in about 8 weeks.  Heavy cardboard works the same way.
Inks of most publications are soy based and will not harm the soil.  However, colored magazine or ads from the newspaper should be avoided, as these inks may contain harmful pigments.
Old tires are being recycled into mulches.  In theory this is a good way to keep tires out of landfills.  However, the rubber contains zinc and leaches into the soil.  I would hesitate using rubber mulches on food crops. 
Another source of mulch is recycled wood from pallets.  Many facilities are grinding this wood into shredded mulch, and offering it to the consumer in multiple colors.
The dyes used in this process are vegetable based and will bio-degrade safely into the soil.  However, some sources I have seen are cautioning  that this wood source maybe contaminated.  Shippers have issues with insects and rodents in cargo, and some of these pallets are saturated with these insecticides and arsenic. 


One other mulch I will ask you to NOT use is cypress mulch.  The problem with cypress is that the gulf coast region is being harvested of these trees, and area eco-systems are being destroyed.  Even small basins and swamps are drying out.  The natural floodwater controls are being affected. More trees are harvested than can regrow so this source is unsustainable.  Wildlife refuge and habitats are disappearing.


Gravel and stones can be used as mulch.  They can smother weeds, and look pretty at the base of some plants.  Careful plant choices are required with this type of mulch, however, since rocks can hold a tremendous amount of heat and plants can ‘bake’.  The use of succulents and cactus may be suitable for this type of mulch.  Alpine plants and other rock garden choices will hold up as well.
pebblesrock mulch

Springtime is typically time to mulch the landscape.  The soil should be fairly warmed up since mulch, while regulating soil temperatures, may hinder the warm-up if put on too cool of soil.  Some food crops, like tomatoes need warmer soils.
Another faulty practice concerning mulching is ‘volcano’ mulch.  We have all see this time and time again, only to see this result. The bark of the tree holds moisture and trees are set up to fail from bacteria, fungus, and insects. Never put mulch right up against the trunk and never more that 3” – 4” deep.

volcano mulch
mulch for trees

Mulch is a key to healthy soil, healthy plants, and environmentally sound gardening practices.  Mulch inhibits weeds – reducing herbicides and hand digging.  Mulch saves water – soil dry out less frequently which requires less supplemental water. Mulch – organic mulch- will gradually decompose and add nutrients back into the soil. 


Spring is Finally breaking in my Zone 6 garden, and mulch is not far behind.  We have Mulch to Do!

What is your favorite mulch?  Let us know.  I love to hear from my readers.  Have a great Spring.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Outdoor Spaces–Important to Homeowners

Homeowners are making outdoor spaces more and more livable.  The health and wellness of the family is the important factor driving  the homeowner’s decisions on all types of purchases.  Today’s Garden Center Magazine has determined that even though the number of backyard vegetable gardens has dropped since 2011, 53% of homeowners still grow some vegetables or fruit. The majority of homeowners are extending the ‘natural’ products they will be seeking this year.
Young families and seniors are well aware of the dangers of chemicals on their food, and in their yards. According to Garden Writers Association Foundation (GWAF),  nearly twice as many gardeners plan to skip the chemicals and purchase organic products. 
Although 62% of those in the survey were somewhat concerned with the environment, but about one-fourth of those folks were also somewhat concerned with pest control.
When pest intrude on the outdoor space, the enjoyment of that space is compromised.  That concern drives buyers to seek ‘insect and disease resistant’ plant material.  Many growers are stepping up with new cultivars that speak to this issue. From roses and Monarda, to Lungwort and phlox, the disease resistance of powdery mildew and blackspot  is bred into many plants.  And investing in quality plants that will be less fussy and more durable has the gardener interested. Plant growers and landscape professionals all want the same thing – a satisfied customer.

chart for low maintenance

The organic garden is becoming more user friendly, and plant breeders are responding with new plants.  However, native plants, whether perennials, shrubs, or trees, have an inherited resistance to insects and diseases. Using native plants, the gardener can reduce fungicides, insecticides, and water usage.

 535913_419946408081513_2037811809_n (1)
Another garden practice to lower use of chemicals is to plant plants in the right place.  If a full sun plant gets 6 – 8 hours of sun, it is less likely to suffer and weaken the plant making it susceptible to diseases and insects. By the same token, plants that require moist, shade will not do well in a sunny border that dries out regularly. Do not plant too densely, for air needs to circulate around plants to reduce molds and fungus growth. These considerations are key when the gardener wants to reduce maintenance in the garden and yet have a outdoor space that is pleasant and beautiful.


Although Native plants do not need extra nutrients added to the beds, the modern, savvy gardener knows that the soil is the key to healthy plants. Many ornamentals do need soil that is rich in nutrients, and drains well.  Adding organic material to the soil is realized in the form of compost, natural mulch, and organic fertilizers.
How%20Compost%20HappensHow-Mulch-Works chart

These applications of compost and mulch need only to be applied once a season.  The nutrients breaks down slowing and evenly, eliminating start and stop, irregular growth that can lead to leggy, weak plants.  And the mulch will greatly reduce weed seeds from germinating, reducing the use of herbicides. No weekly weed pulling, and reducing the number of fertilizer applications a year opens up more free time.
Reducing the maintenance in the garden opens up leisure time that can be spent in the extended outdoor space.  The health and wellness of relaxing is important to many. And who doesn’t like to relax, at lease a little.?  relax in green space

Health and Wellness is a trend that is well worth the buyers consideration.  The value of plants outweighs the high maintenance of more finicky ones. Read labels and pick the brains of garden center associates, as they will be able to point you to those plants that will be a valuable part of your outdoor space. As a garden coach, I can give my local gardeners a working plan for a low maintenance garden that is beautiful.  Folks in SW Ohio, can email me at, or

Saturday, September 22, 2012

How to Create Compost

Compost - A Beneficial Soil Additive

I have talked about the beneficial effects of compost many times, but I have recently been asked about the ‘ingredients’ that can be beneficial to the mix and to the soil.
brown, green air, water


These are microscopic images of nematodes, fungi, protozoa, and amoeba. In healthy soil, there are millions of these guys looking for something to eat.

Micro-organisms love to eat.  So organic materials are high on the ingredient list.  What is considered organic?  The simple answer is ‘anything that was once alive’.  This life could have existed as plants or animals. So let’s look at specific green and brown ingredients the gardener can easily use to make compost a beneficial product. 

Green Ingredients for the compost pile are high in Nitrogen, amino acids, and proteins, which are foods for the micro-organisms. 

grass clippingsgreen material

Grass clippings and vegetable peels are easily available for the home compost pile. Any salad fixing -  like the outer leaves of lettuce or onions, the tops of carrots, or the stems of peppers - can be added to the compost. Trimmings from green beans, or the core of a head of cabbage are eligible for the green category for the compost pile. Don’t throw away that banana peel, or the core of an apple, or potato peelings either.  Put them into the compost bin.
rabbit manure

Other green elements for compost are manures.  This can come from horses, cows, bunnies, goats, chickens, and bats. When bunny or chicken manure is used, don’t forget to add in the bedding materials, like straw or wood shavings. Those materials are a good source of ‘brown’ ingredients for the pile.  ( I should note here that neither cat nor dog manure nor human waste should ever be added to the compost pile because of the risk of parasites that may not break down in the compost.)

100_1244coffee filters and grounds

Coffee grounds and banana peels are almost daily ingredients to the compost bin at my house. Tea bags get in the mix too.  Let’s face it, coffee grounds are free, smell great, and they help retain moisture in the compost.  Seaweed or algae from the water feature in the yard can also be added.  Doing some dead-heading in the garden?  That plant material can go in too.  Cleaning up houseplants of yellowing or dropped leaves is another source for green ingredients for the compost pile.

kitchen waste with eggs

Egg shells are controversial as an ingredient for compost.  The salmonella risk of uncooked eggs is in question.  I don’t use my compost on food crops, so I have been known to throw in the eggs.  However, if even handling the compost might cause a risk concern,  the shells can be microwaved for three minutes (cooked) before adding them to the compost pile.

One other ingredient that I don’t think about adding to the pile is hair. Cutting the kids hair, or brushing a shedding dog are good sources for hair. 


The ‘brown’ ingredients added to the compost pile provide carbon.  Microbes really get into eating these.

brown materialpaper

The list of these ‘brown’ carbon sources are many:  dead leaves, straw, dried grass, paper towels and the tube they come on, old potting soil, dead plants, the coffee filters and tea bags, wood ashes from the fire pit, saw dust from untreated wood, and even dried, stale beans or grains from the pantry.


Dryer fabric softener sheets and dryer lint are good ‘brown’ ingredients.

Paper towels, toilet paper rolls, and tissues need not be thrown away to become landfill, but can be part of the beneficial elements of compost.

Several brown items that should not be added are animal fats from bones or meat. Neither should weed seeds nor diseased plants be added to the compost pile as the high temperatures needed to kill the seed or pathogens are not maintained in the home compost. Spreading weeds are a challenge anyway, we do not need to help them along. 

100_0419I use both of these for compost in my garden. (The wire one is a recycled dog kennel – win win) The air flow is good in both.  But the enclosed one in black has a handy lid to keep critters out.  This is the one I put food scraps into.  Dogs, raccoons and opossum find the compost materials yummy.  I have had the enclosed bin be too dry since rain doesn’t get in so I’ve bee know to add a bottle of beer to the container.  The hops and yeasts in the beverage just add to the natural elements in the mixture. Twigs and grass clipping, or other yard debris go into the wire bin.

Some are reluctant to have a compost pile because of the odor of decaying Compost%20Bin  materials. If the technology is too complicated, some will not attempt to compost anything. Both the odor and the technical aspects should not deter us from trying. The simplest ‘rule’  I’ve followed it to layer the green and brown layers in an approximate 50-50 ratio.  If the mix is higher in the brown, that will work too.

turning compost

Turning the compost in an open pile is not difficult.  By allowing air and moisture to get in and through the material, decomposition will naturally occur. The layers are not too critical once the pile gets turned. Left unturned, the materials will still decompose, just a little slower. I’ve had results in an unturned pile in a year.  If the pile get smelly, (sour), add more ‘brown’ ingredients like straw, leaves, or shredded paper.

A  healthy finished compost should be moist, not soggy, and have a rich, earthy smell.


This product called compost will have immeasurable benefits in the garden. The feeding of the soil is the key.  Feed the microbes, and they will digest the organic material, and create enzymes that will allow the nutrients to feed the plants. Feed the soil, not the plants is the mantra of organic gardening.  Compost is a great way to return beneficial nutrients to the soil.

I hope composting becomes a vital part of your gardening. Thanks for stopping by today.