the "easy organic"
spring it begins.
Gardeners drive to the local nursery or hardware
store, and load up their cars with bag upon bag of soil amendments -
peat moss, gypsum, manure, compost, and topsoil - itís expensive!
There are so many things weíd rather be spending our money on, like
that new snail vine from Thompson and Morgan, or that gorgeous glazed
pot set at the garden store.
sad experience tells us that without good soil, the garden flops.
Right? And let's not even get started on the whole yearly affair of
tilling, plowing, turning, double digging, cultivating, and raking. Itís
enough to make you think about taking up another hobby. But the soil
is where it all starts, and if you skimp on the soil, then your plants
will be skimpy too.
So why is
it that the hardpan soil you started with still bounces your tiller around
like a ping pong ball? And, why does that sandy garden patch still
drain water like a sieve? And, what happens to all that soil you cart in
every year? Where does it all go? It can really wear you down! Well, Iím
here to give you a break. Soil building doesnít have to be expensive and
hard, and it doesnít have to be a carefully measured science, either. When
given a chance, nature will take care of most of your needs. All she needs
is a little elbow-room. So quit crowding her out of your garden, and listen
Available From Thompson and Morgan
Build up your soil
what kind of soil you have, it is ideal for growing something. In all but
the most extreme situations, there is a lovely or tasty plant you can put
right in the soil you start with, from clay to hardpan to sand to swampy
muck. SOMETHING will thrive. So instead of trying to improve ALL of your
soil, spot treat around your pickier plants. That will stop spreading your
resources so thin. Once you have reduced the area that needs work to
manageable sizes, then itís time to get to work.
Conventional wisdom has us working and turning the earth with shovel, pick
and tiller. It is supposed to give us fluffy soil, weed reduction, and
available nutrients. This isnít actually true. Take even the best fluffy
worked garden soil and fill a pot with it. Within a few months with no
compaction other than watering, that soil will be a brick. Tilling actually
destroys soil structure, kills off the beneficial fungal, bacterial, and
insect life that maintains plant health, and can also bring weed seeds up to
the surface where they will germinate. It can also take one pesky taproot of
a weed, and chop it up so that you will have ten or twenty weeds where the
one used to be. So while there is always a place for tilling, it isnít
actually a good thing when used every year. Enough organic matter in the
garden will result in a natural, slow-paced movement of nutrients, water,
and oxygen through the soil. Worms, rain, roots, fungi, and even the garden
pests like woodlice, snails, moles and voles, can contribute to the general
health and structure of the soil. Tilling is seldom needed. (a humus rich
soil, perfect without tillage).
Your Own Soil!
Mixed cover crop
So how do
you work in soil amendments down deep where they are needed? Well, how about
growing them? Iíve sat in horticulture classes where I was told that
topsoil is a limited commodity and cannot be replaced. Well, my response to
that is unprintable - but makes good fertilizer... How did topsoil come to
be in the first place? It was grown. And it can still be grown. When you
plant deep rooted plants such as Alfalfa, Tyfon, and Daikon radish as cover
crops, you are breaking up the soil and providing access for rain and oxygen
to reach deeper into the soil. When they are cut off at the top and die, the
roots left in the ground will continue to decompose, preparing the way for
the next generation of plants, while the top portion of the plant, shredded
and left to lie, will provide protection and nourishment for germinating
seedlings. Each consecutive planting of cover crops will work itself deeper
and deeper into the soil, loosening clay, tightening sand, and absorbing
excess water in mucky areas. A single well-planned year can give you six or
more inches of humus for your garden. And not a single shovel lifted, nor a
wheelbarrow full of amendments hauled at the expense of your breaking back.
try this method of gardening, you will undoubtedly notice that while the
well screened and sifted peat and topsoil and compost you have used in the
past disappeared without a trace into the native soil in your garden, the
roughly chopped, semi-finished materials that create your humus layer in
your no-till garden simply work themselves in and stick around a while. They
still need to be replenished, but by continuing to use your plant trimmings
and compost on the soil you can keep it going for around four to seven years
before you need to cover crop it again, and the results will be even better.
It isnít too hard to explain this phenomenon. Tiny broken down particles
of ideal garden soil have no staying power. The weather in one season will
cook them right back to the soil you started with. But when you use big,
chunky, semi finished or unfinished compost, woodchips, manure, leaves,
grass - whatever - it takes time to break down. Since organic material tends
to become spongy while it rots, it forms a matrix under the soil of air and
moisture that cannot be recreated or improved upon by any gel polymer. The
plants have easy access to everything they need, and the soil is stabilized,
not as vulnerable to erosion, drought, or flood.
Mulch - looks nice, tastes
been told that the down side to this method of gardening is that the soil is
too chunky for starting small seeds, and it looks sloppy. Well, there are
ways around this, too. On top of every layer of plant material, you can use
decorative mulches of wood or chopped leaves, with a little organic
fertilizer mixed in for good measure. It looks nice, rots down with the rest
of the organic material, and there is no problem. For the seeds, you can
move aside the top layers of chunky organic material to expose the
well-rotted undersides. THAT layer will easily germinate happy little
seedlings of even the finest dust sized seeds.
cropping can also serve two purposes. Not only can you provide organic
material, nutrients and soil conditioning, but also you can use the cover
crops as pest control. Sudan Grass (sorghum) for instance, repels nematodes
even as it provides wonderful humus and feeds the beneficial fungi in the
soil with its natural sugars. Fast growing cover crops can also choke out
pernicious weeds, like poison ivy, bindweed, devils ivy, creeping charlie,
henbit, and other garden pests. Planting cover crops, which provide a
habitat for beneficial insects can greatly reduce your pest problems in the
garden, reducing or eliminating the need to spray. And, planting low growing
cover crops around the base of your taller plants as living mulch, can
attract beneficial insects, provide protection from soil splash on the
underside of the leaves, and hold in moisture even in hot weather.
Red clover and alfalfa
you are with great garden soil, and only the expense of the cover crop seeds
for a year. You can maintain and help it along, of course, by continuing to
add organic matter - as much and as varied as possible. Newspaper and
cardboard are great to lay in the paths, or to use as weed barrier, covered
with your more attractive mulch. They rot, and worms love them, so they add
to the structure of the soil in one season. No lifting and re-rolling a
damp, muddy, and usually odorous plastic sheeting out of the garden. Not to
mention that the cardboard and newspaper are free and are small enough to
easily handle on your own.
the cover crops can only accumulate and hold as many nutrients as the soil
already holdsÖand some soils just donít have what it takes. So soil
amendments are necessary from time to time. But when the structure of the
soil is right, the nutrients will not be lost due to erosion or percolation,
and will be held in the soil for your plants to use. When it is used, and
the plants returned to the soil as scraps and compost, it isnít completely
lost, either, and subsequent applications can become lighter, and less
frequent, saving you time and money.
So why not stop fighting mother nature for a year or two and put her to work
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