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The Dirt on Soil

 

compost

Compost for my new garden

Many of us take soil for granted. I just spoke to my daughter who said she broke sod for a tiny new vegetable garden. After taking away the sod she said she filled that space with good dirt. When I asked what good dirt was she said bags of organic dirt from Home Depot. We’re still talking dirt, even though she talked about good and bad dirt, soil.

I may get dirty while working in my garden, but I love my soil. The forester who made our forest management plan told us we were lucky because our area has good soil. And he had the soil map to prove it. And over the years I have improved the good soil.

Around 2000 we moved the vegetable garden and made it much smaller, 10×10 feet, because I was having so much trouble with my hip – all replaced in 2003. In that new space I started with my good soil and added my own compost to each planting bed.

Now you must have guessed I wouldn’t be happy with a 10×10 garden for long. We added another 10×10 space for a raspberry patch, and added more compost, plus some rock phosphate for phosphorous and greensand  for potassium, two of the three major nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. Nitrogen is the third nutrient in the NPK ratio you see when you buy fertilizer.

I also sprinkle lime from time to time to keep the soil from being too acid. I was not very scientific about any of these amounts, just sprinkling it on the soil when the mood came on me. You can imagine how happy I was when I sent my soil to the University of Massachusetts five years ago and found out that the vegetable garden had good soil with nine percent organic matter.

Any soil is made up of inorganic material like sand and silt, then organic matter. Think of the forest floor where leaves fall on the ground and rot, birds and animals die and they rot into the soil. There is water in the soil, and even, almost forgotten, air.  A good and productive soil is about 50% air.  But we are not done. The soil is also alive with fungi and bacteria that break down all that organic material and turn it into humus. The food web decrees that these fungi and bacteria will be eaten by tiny creatures like nematodes and springtails. In turn they will be eaten by beetles and ants and earthworms. All of them are adding to the richness of the soil, with their dead bodies, and their poop. They are also aerating the soil and making it possible for the water to penetrate.

How do we get good soil? We try to follow Mother Nature’s routine, by eliminating poisonous pesticides that will kill all those living creatures in the soil, and

adding more organic material, otherwise known as compost. We feed the soil, just like Mother Nature instead of later trying to feed our plants with chemical fertilizers.

I was talking to a friend who told me that she went to a permaculture workshop where one motto was “Let the carbon stay where it falls.” That means when you cut back plants in the fall you can leave the debris in the garden.  It is not neat and pretty, but you are following the natural routine. The debris will rot and enrich the soil. You and the debris are feeding the soil.

I am not a purist of any system, but I spent an afternoon pruning deadwood out of my roses and let some of the smaller twigs fall invisibly into the center of the rose bush to rot over time. I confess I did take many larger branches off to a brush pile to rot at a more leisurely pace.

I have made a fair amount of compost over the years. Some I make in a plastic bin I got from some organization. So long ago, I don’t remember who, possibly the Franklin County Waste Management? Compost adds nutrients and the organic matter improves the structure of the soil.

I also make compost piles contained within wire fencing or, in my circular black plastic potato bin with holes in the sides for the potato plants to reach through to the sun if they are so inclined.  I turned that potato bin into a compost bin. I can turn my compost pile by heaving it from one bin to the other.

I also have a plain old compost pile that I don’t turn regularly or fuss with. Eventually that pile turns into compost. I am never in a hurry.

I put all my kitchen peelings into my compost, autumn leaves, weeds, chicken manure when I have it, and debris from the garden in the fall when I am getting ready for winter. From now on I may leave some of that autumnal carbon where it falls.

I am getting ready to start a new garden in Greenfield. The first thing I will do is send a soil sample to UMass so they can tell me what my soil particularly needs.  I don’t know whether it is bad dirt or good soil, but I will find out. Currently I only know it grows a lot of grass, and I have a lot of space to fill with new plants.

I don’t have the necessary amounts of homemade compost for this new garden, so I have ordered a truck load, a major gift from my husband. I will use this compost when planting all the new trees and shrubs I am thinking of, as well as for top dressing on existing plantings.

We are fortunate to have two compost farms nearby, Martin’s Farm in Greenfield and Bear Path Farm in Whately. By feeding the soil with compost I’ll improve the structure and fertility of my soil. If it isn’t good soil to begin, it will be soon.

What next? I have to decide what to plant in this new garden. Do you think there will be roses? Keep watching.

Between the Rows   May 30, 2015

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