As the gardening season approaches (or in some areas is already here) you may be wondering how to enrich your soil without resorting to synthetic fertilizers and other chemicals that risk burning their plants and killing beneficial organisms if they are applied improperly. Is there a way to organically enrich soil? There is.
Compost is a fantastic way to enrich the soil. Unlike synthetic fertilizers, it will:
- enrich your soil slowly while keeping the pH of the soil in balance.
- improves the soil’s drainage while allowing it to hold on to water for a longer time.
- supports earthworms and other beneficial organisms and discourages pests and disease.
- has trace minerals that are often not found in chemical fertilizers.
Not only this, a lot of these fertilizers give the plants a quick, hard burst of energy then basically disappear.
So how does a person start a compost pile?
First, it is not necessary to buy one of those expensive roller barrel things. All a gardener needs to do is go to their gardening place or big box store and buy enough turkey wire for a circle that’s about three feet high and two and a half feet in diameter.
Tip: Break up the soil at the bottom of the container to help with drainage.
After you build the container, creating the compost pile is easy. Just add old leaves, straw, hay and other materials appropriate for composting. Build a 2-inch thick layer then add the activator. An activator jumpstarts the decomposition, and add nutrients. It can be a powder that contains bacteria; horse or cow manure; alfalfa; bone or blood meal or even high protein kibble. Make sure to dust the entire surface of the layer with activator.
Keep adding layers of compost material with a dusting of activator until the container is full. The material should be loose and fluffy and never packed down. This allows air and oxygen to circulate. Water the pile but do not allow it to get too wet, as compost piles that are too wet or too dry won’t decompose. A dry pile does nothing at all, and a soggy pile simply rots. In hot, dry weather the pile may need to be watered every three or four days.
After a week, turn the pile over. To do this thoroughly, take off the wire, put it aside then use a gardening fork to refill it. Place drier material in the center of the container, and moisten if necessary. Repeat every week. Some gardeners prefer compost that is not broken down all the way. This is because a coarser compost holds on to water more efficiently. Coarse compost should be ready to use after about two weeks. Once the pile starts to decompose, gardening experts recommend that nothing be added to the container until the old compost is used up.
Ingredients for a Compost Pile
Remember, not everything can go into a compost pile. Things to avoid are any paper with colored ink, animal products save blood meal, bone meal or eggshells, diseased or infested plant material, charcoal, alkaline soil and materials with a very high nitrogen count. Materials that are good for the compost pile include dry plant and green plant materials, paper bags, white paper, cardboard, straw, dead flowers, weeds, peels, husks and other organic kitchen waste.
Mulch is material that is spread over the ground to cover it. Moreover, mulch does not have to be organic, but coarse compost can serve as mulch. It adds nutrients to the soil as it decomposes. Mulch keeps the soil beneath it from drying out, suppresses weeds, cools the soil in summer and keeps it warm in winter. It helps suppress harmful insects such as the Colorado potato beetle. Mulch is best if it is thick in moist climates, though a thin layer is best in climates that are hotter and drier. Organic mulches included straw, hay, shredded leaves, wood chips and even old coffee beans. Grass clippings make perfectly good mulch if they are weed free and have not been sprayed with herbicides.
Few animals play as vital a part in enriching the soil as the earthworm. Earthworm castings add nitrogen to the soil. Their tunneling through the soil aerates it and improves its ability to retain water. Earthworms keep the soil loose, which supports the growth of roots. They raise minerals from the lower levels of the soil to the topsoil, where they are available to the plants. They neutralize soil that’s too acidic or too alkaline for most plants to thrive in.
To help earthworms, a gardener should till their soil very lightly. Deep tilling not only kills earthworms but disrupts beneficial microorganisms by abrading the soil and drying it out. Tilling to about 3 inches is ideal. Unless a new garden bed is being created, you should never till the soil deeper than half a foot. Earthworms dislike chemical fertilizers and even natural fertilizers with too much nitrogen, such as un-composted manure. The soil should be watered regularly to prevent it from drying out but not overwatered.
By following these simple steps you can begin enriching your soil organically in no time! And, your plants will be thanking you for all the added nutrients with a bountiful harvest this spring!