In the Garden:
Northern & Central Midwest
March, 2007
Regional Report

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2386

This lovely, practical compost pile was tucked behind a fence at the back of an elegant garden at a manor house in England.

Organic Matter Makes the World Go Round

The garden season is coming, even though some of us are still buried under a foot of snow. As the ground begins to thaw and beds get ready to be turned, we should give some thought to just how we can make that soil better.

Organic matter is like pure gold in growing matters, and the more of it we can add to our soil, the better our plants will grow. So, what exactly is organic matter, and what does it do for us?

Why Organic Matter?
Organic matter is simply animal and/or plant remains at various stages of decay. But what it does for the soil is not simple. As it breaks down, organic matter helps increase the soil's capacity to hold nutrients for plants to use. It improves the way water moves through the soil, and it holds onto moisture in dry times.

Organic matter also makes the soil structure better by preventing compaction and encouraging root development. And, perhaps best of all, it serves as food for those wonderful microorganisms that keep our soil and plants healthy.

Where to Find It?
There are many sources of organic matter to add to the soil, some of which are easy to obtain, and most of which are fairly inexpensive. You can certainly use hay, straw, leaf mold, or sawdust, but probably the two best organic amendments are manure and compost. These both increase the soil's ability to absorb and retain water and nutrients more efficiently, and add nutrients. As an aside, they also benefit society by recycling waste.

If you use manure, you want to make sure it is thoroughly composted. Most horse farms will have one- and two-year-old piles, and all you have to do is find a way to load it into a truck or bags. If the manure is not composted or aged, it may have odor problems and it may tie up nutrients as it decomposes. Plus, it will burn plants if it's fresh.

Horse manure is usually readily available, and it's usually mixed with straw bedding. Poultry and sheep manures are also acceptable but are much stronger. Don't use manure from any animal that eats meat, such as dogs and cats.

Compost is an excellent soil amendment and mulch. You can use it in flower and vegetable gardens, lawns, and tree and shrub beds. Simply till several inches into the existing soil or spread it on top as a mulch. You can create your own compost by processing all of your kitchen and garden wastes or you can purchase compost from many city and county facilities.

However you decide to use it, get some organic matter in your hands as soon as possible!


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