When you hear the word soil, you may be thinking of the red clay in your backyard or perhaps your sandy soil that drains water as quickly as you apply it. While both of these describe soil by its very definition, healthy soil is a vibrant dance of microorganisms, organic matter, small bits of rocky material and sheer beauty.
Healthy soil is soil where plants flourish, earthworms eat and poop with reckless abandon and water and air are in almost perfect balance. This may be a far cry from where your soil is now but there is one magic bullet that can fix almost any soil…compost. Most gardeners are well aware of the benefits of compost; that it adds aeration to clay soils and helps bind sand particles together. But many people aren’t aware that even a small amount of compost, when measured by total soil volume, can yield huge results in soil quality.
Consider this for a moment: it is fairly common for disturbed soils (that includes the great majority of soils in subdivisions) to be comprised of only 1.5% to 2% organic matter. The other 98% to 98.5% is made up of soil particles like clay, silt and sand. If you increase the organic matter only a small percentage, the clay particles start to break apart to allow water to pass through and the sand particles start to stick together to keep water from moving so fast through the soil. The great Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms in Swoope, Virginia has increased his percentage of organic matter from 1.5% to 8% over the past 50 years by allowing the carbon cycle to occur without negative interference.
Let’s look at how nature does this without any assistance from us. In a deciduous forest, like the great majority of those on the East Coast, the trees produce an absolutely astounding amount of leaves each spring and summer. The leaves assimilate and process sunlight and at the end of the season, the trees drop all of these leaves around their feet. The leaves contain some of the nutrients that the far reaching root systems have mined throughout the year and now they are being placed exactly where they are needed…at the trees’ roots. These leaves are compressed by rain, snow and animals big and small who walk on and through the leaves, thereby speeding their decomposition. Each year these leaves are on the sliding scale of breaking down from oak leaves larger than your hand to pieces that are hardly even recognizable. All of this is adding organic matter, or nature’s compost, to the soil. The result is healthy soil that is loose and friable.
Contrast that to the typical neighborhood yard with a couple of trees. The leaves are collected in the fall and removed from the area completely, sometimes even bagged to be taken to the landfill. Then we apply mulch around the trees and wonder why our soil becomes poorer and poorer with each passing year. What we have essentially done is removed all of nature’s fertilizer and compost.
The first step to improving your soil is to begin adding that compost back to the soil. Start a simple compost pile in your backyard and/or shred the leaves and then apply them in a layer under the mulch you usually use…just be sure to keep the total depth of mulch in the 2″ to 3″ range. In the case of mulch, more is not better. See my mulch volcano article for more info on that. If you’d like to improve the appearance of your lawn, when you aerate in the fall, apply a 1/4″ to 1/2″ layer of compost and then overseed. If you keep this process going, you should be able to eliminate or drastically reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizer that you have to apply to cool-season turf in the fall.
If your tomatoes seemed stunted this year, add compost. If you are planting a new Camellia this fall, add compost. If your Astilbes seem a bit chlorotic, add compost. You get the point…compost is king. Without it, all you end up with is DIRT. And dirt won’t give you the results that you are capable of producing!
I’d love to hear your stories of growing great soil and the results of your hard work. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org or add it to the comment section below.