In the Garden:
Middle South
December, 2003
Regional Report

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As a New Year's ritual, every bed in my garden gets a fluffy brown blanket of aged stable manure, including beds that hold spinach and other hardy greens beneath plastic tunnels.

Organic Matter: The Tie that Binds

Every year, some time between Christmas and New Year's Day, I treat my beds to a heaping helping of rotted stable litter (horse manure and sawdust gone chocolate with time). It's an annual ritual that makes me and my soil feel good. Some scientists say that organic matter is the thread that links together the biological, chemical, and physical properties of soil. I think of it as the tie that binds seasons past to the seasons ahead.

Soil Biology
Most gardeners know that organic matter is good for the soil, but perhaps we don't appreciate just how good it can be. Looking at the biological angle, organic matter energizes all those microscopic life forms that call soil home, so that bad guys (like fusarium fungi and nematodes) get held in check by millions of other unsung heroes. Organic matter also helps soil clean itself of toxic chemicals, and it probably plays a role in limiting greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

Banking on Nutrients
Chemically speaking, you might think of organic matter as your soil's nutrient bank account. Whatever fertilizers you use work better in organically enriched soil, and the organic matter itself is often a rich source of micronutrients such as iron, aluminum, zinc, copper, and manganese. Want some numbers? A modest rise on organic matter content, say from 2.5 to 3 percent, can increase the soil's ability to hold nutrients by more than 10 percent. Now, that's what I call a good investment!

On the physical side, organic matter helps the soil retain moisture while improving its drainage. Speaking of moisture, my soil is usually too wet to dig this time of year, so I spread the organic matter over the surface and wait until spring to mix it in.

Meanwhile, I can't help but think the rain that trickles down through that rich blanket of good stuff offers my soil a tempting taste of good things to come, like a toast to the New Year.


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