"Soil is not dirt. It is a living organism, or rather a collection of living organisms, and it must be feed." Fred Bahnson, Soil and Sacrament, page 3.
Hush now . . . listen . . . sit down here on the ground next to me, and listen carefully. Do you hear that quiet little whine? That’s the worms and the soil micro organisms. There waking up with the warmer weather and they are hungry! “Feed me, Feed me,” ever hopeful, they quietly call.
Most gardeners understand their soil needs fed to best nourish their garden plants. It stands to reason that well fed soils produce better food for our families. In the last few decades there has been a measurable decline in the nutritional value of food produced commercially in the United States. (See: http://www.soils.wisc.edu/~barak/poster_gallery/minneapolis2000a/. ) At the same time the nutritional superiority of organic produce has been well documented. (See “Good Growing” by Leslie A. Duram, pgs. 5 & 6) So when you hear the cries of the hungry soil, be sure to give it plenty to eat. Your families health will reap ample rewards.
Organic matter fuels the life of the soil, nourishes worms and beneficial micro-organisms, and supports the soil nutrient cycle. (And happy worms are quiet worms . . .) While there are many products available at local nurseries and garden supply centers that support healthy soils, free organic matter is easy to find. Even if your budget doesn’t include fancy organic soil amendments, you too can have superior soil. Below you will find a list of common materials, where to find them, and how to use them:
Coffee grounds: Coffee grounds are great in the garden. They supply nitrogen, minerals, and carbon in a fairly slow release form. The traces of caffeine that remain may provide a side benefit of being toxic to slugs. Coffee grounds can be added to soil mixes, incorporated into the top few inches of the soil when preparing garden beds, used as a top dressing, added to the compost pile, or even used as mulch. You can save your own, ask friends and relatives to save it, take a covered canister to work to collect the grounds, and ask at your favorite coffee shop or deli.
Garden debris: Lawn and garden clippings, weeds, leaves, chipped sticks and branches, all are valuable sources of organic matter for your garden. All these materials can be added to the compost pile. (Compost should be made from about 60% dry material and 40% fresh or wet material. You can sun dry your garden debris before adding to the pile to keep the ratio in balance – if the sun ever comes out. If you use too much wet or fresh material it will compact and turn to slime.) These materials can also be used for mulch. Weeds should be cut or pulled before setting seed and then sun dried so they do not reroot. Soft garden debris, such as grass clippings, weeds that won’t resprout or that have been dried, and leaves can also be buried in deep planting holes to feed the worms. Cover with at least 4 inches of garden soil, plant out your starts, and let the worms do their thing! You can collect your own garden debris and your non-gardening neighbors may contribute theirs if you ask. If you notice tree trimming companies working in your neighborhood you can ask them to dump the chips they create. These chips make great mulch.
Kitchen scraps: Turns out the science experiments in your refrigerator are good for something after all! Any leftovers, wilted produce, or vegetable trimmings that do not contain animal products can be added to the compost pile as the “wet” portion. They can also be feed to worms in worm beds or in deep planting holes. (Don’t bury or compost anything that contains meat. This will attract wild, stray, and feral animals who will make a mess out of your efforts.) While we all have kitchen scraps, I know folks that have collected scraps from childcare centers, schools, restaurants, etc. The problem with this, especially in a rural area, is that the scraps often contain dairy and meat which attract wild and possibly rabid animals. Dairy and meat scraps may also foster the growth pathogens in the compost or soil.
Fabric and fiber: Cotton, silk, and wool make excellent garden amendments. You can use them to line your planting holes – not only will they add organic matter, they will slow down those pesky gophers. They can also be laid down over short cut weeds or on the soil around plants as a weed barrier. Pile other mulch materials on top to hide your old bloomers and as an additional source of organic matter. Fabric can also be shredded and added to the compost pile as part of your dry material. Just read your labels first. You want to make sure the fabric is 100% natural fibers so you are not adding chemicals to your soil. (Dryer lint from 100% natural fibers is good compost material too!) Friends and family might save old worn out clothes and linens if you ask, as might hotels, or anyone with a fiber related business.
Paper Products: Unbleached paper and cardboard, especially those without colored inks make excellent sources of organic matter. They can be layered right on top of the soil or mowed down weeds as a weed barrier, and then covered with chips or grass clippings. They can be shredded and added to the compost pile, or buried under planting holes to feed the worms. To decompose well in the compost they can be combined with a small amount of manure or coffee grounds as a nitrogen source. Newspaper, brown paper bags, and cardboard egg cartons are ideal. Slick, coated, white, or papers with colored inks should be avoided as they may contain toxins that can enter your soil and plants. Paper products can be saved from the home and requested from friends, family, and businesses.
Manure: Livestock manure is often available from individuals or businesses who raise animals for pleasure or food production. While manure is a great fertilizer, (and generally a good source of nitrogen) it can be a source of pathogens. Manure used directly on the garden should be aged for 12 months or hot composted (see http://www.plantea.com/compost.htm ). Food grown from manure fertilized soil must be washed before eating. However, manure can also be buried at the bottom of deep planting holes, in soil that contains earthworms. The worms will make quick work of manure “and the casts don’t contain any disease pathogens.” http://journeytoforever.org/compost_worm.html
Sawdust: If you know someone who does wood working or runs a mill you may be able to obtain piles of sawdust from untreated wood. Sawdust makes great mulch. It can be layered over paper or fabric to give the garden a neat appearance. An occasional sprinkling of water will help keep it in place. Sawdust also makes a great addition to the compost pile as part of the dry portion. A source of nitrogen will also need to be included to help the sawdust break down.
Hair: This is something I have never used in the garden, but if you know a dog groomer, barber, or hairdresser this material makes a nice slow release source of nitrogen. It is also reputed to repel deer and other critters! To use as a critter deterrent the hair can be used as a mulch around the edges of the garden, or stuffed into mesh bags and hung up on the fence at deer nose level. To provide nitrogen to the soil, short lengths of hair are best, sprinkled in thin layers on the compost pile, through the mulch, or mixed sparingly with other items to be fed to worms.
Grow Your Own: Organic matter can be produced in your yard, field, or a corner of your garden. Nitrogen rich clovers, vetches, and fava beans can be grown all year around. Bulk producing sorghums and other grasses can be grown in the warm months. These materials can be cut for use as mulch, worm food, or added to the compost pile. More information and seeds are available from Bountiful Gardens: http://www.bountifulgardens.org (707) 459-1925.
And there is much morel! There are about a zillion things that can be used for organic matter. See Appendix 5, “Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally” for more ideas. (By Robert Kourik, Metamorphic Press, ISBN 0-9615848-0-7)
Copyright 2006 Harvest McCampbell, Published by The Hoopa Valley People Newspaper April 25, 2006. Posted here with permission.
Updated 11.19.2016: Added a quote and minor edits. Copyright Harvest McCampbell. Please feel free to share using the buttons below. All other rights reserved.