In the Garden:
Lower South
July, 2004
Regional Report

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Landscape wastes,such as tree leaves and grass clippings, are like rocket fuel for boosting your soil and stimulating the activity of beneficial microbes.

Soil: The Foundation for a Great Garden

All good gardens are built on sound cultural techniques, and this is especially true for an organic garden. Start off right and you're well on your way to a beautiful, productive garden. Take shortcuts here and all the miracle products in the world won't save the day.

It may sound like a play on words, but it is true that all good gardens begin in the soil. Most of us start off with something less than Eden when it come to soil. Too sandy, too clayey, too thin, you name it; we've got it here in the south. What we do with it makes all the difference in the world. Get the soil right and your garden will thrive.

Full of Life
We tend to think of our soil based only on its texture and mineral content. Soil tests tell us these things about our soil and guide us as we fertilize. However, a fertile garden soil is literally teeming with life. Billions of tiny organisms can be found in a spoonful of rich garden soil. Bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa, and a host of other organisms live in healthy soil.

As we add leaves, grass clippings, manure, and other forms of organic matter to the soil, these organisms go to work, breaking the materials into humus. Living things eat and excrete, they exchange gases from one form to another, they secrete substances into their immediate environment. In short, they change their environment.

When you add compost or material that can become compost, the soil literally comes to life. Heavy clays become looser and more friable as their structure improves. Organic matter interacts with a clay soil to turn the solid mass into loose clumps of particles grouped together like popped kernels in a bowl of popcorn. Aeration is improved, internal drainage is enhanced, and roots are able to more thoroughly fill the soil and mine its nutrients.

Sandy soils are also improved with compost. Think of organic matter in a sandy soil as tiny sponges mixed in with finely crushed glass. The soil can better hold water and nutrients for plants to use days and weeks later.

Plants were designed to live with their roots surrounded by the decaying materials they produced in previous seasons. Like the forest floor or the soil surface in a meadow, these materials provide the fuel for soil life that in turn feeds plants.

Compost builds soil. It feeds microbes, earthworms, and other organisms that in turn feed our gardens. Like the microbes in a cow's stomach turn grass into "cow food" from which meat and milk are made, the microbes in our garden soil turn organic materials into plant nutrients from which fruit, leaves, and roots are made.

Soil built with regular additions of compost gets more fertile each year. After a few seasons of adding compost, I find the need to fertilize limited to occasional slight corrections and perhaps the use of a starting solution for new transplants. Nutrient imbalances in a purely mineral soil can cause some dramatic negative symptoms. In a soil high in organic content they are seldom noticed. All the macronutrients and micronutrients from the decomposed leaves, grass clippings, and other materials are now available to the growing plants.

I've exhorted gardeners to add organic matter countless times as a solution to a variety of ills. Yet despite seeing it work miracles over and over, I still marvel when I see it again.


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