In nature soil is a renewable resource, but in many gardens the soil is depleted not renewed. In nature, leaves, branches and flowers fall and decompose over time. Gardeners prefer a tidier look and remove top growth on perennials either in the spring or fall. They rake leaves and often bag lawn clippings. Nothing is left to decompose and enrich the soil.
Amending the soil with organic matter such as manure, compost or peatmoss will help build up the soil structure. Compost, manure, bone meal, green manure also called a cover crop and fertilizer can be worked into the soil adding nutrients.
The sale of fertilizer, organic or synthetic is regulated. Information on the container or bill of sale must state the content and nutrients.
There are rules that govern the sale of composts and manures that apply to the large scale producers. Products sold in bags or in large quantities will have been tested and have a list of nutrients carried in the product.
The rules do not apply to small producers. It is up to the buyer to ask questions and look at the product being purchased. Before making a purchase, look at the product and the surrounding area. Organic matter should be well rotted and smell or earth not of rotting material or feces. Look to see if there are weeds growing near or on the pile. If so, then there are likely to be many weed seeds in the organic material. Ask how long the pile has been in place. Turning the manure pile often speeds up the process and less nutrients leach away from the compost.
When purchasing manure ask if the feed that the animals ate was sprayed with chemicals. If so, which chemicals. There are a number of chemicals that stay active in the plants material after spaying. They then pass through the animals system intact. When the feces breaks down the chemicals become part of the compost. As a result, the compost will inhibit the growth of leafy plants.
Bone Meal is an organic fertilizer that has underwent a manufacturing process and can be purchased in powder or granular form. It is a good source of phosphorous, a nutrient needed for flowering, fruit and roots. The nutrient contents will be on the label.
Green manure also called a cover crop are plants that is sown, grown and incorporated back into the soil before they complete their life cycle. Buckwheat, cereal grasses, legumes or daikon radishes all have been used successfully to add organic matter to the soil.
In vegetable gardens raised or flat, organic material can be spread over the top of the soil to be incorporated. How the soil is worked depends on the size of the garden and the equipment available. Rototilling or hand digging in with a fork both work well.
In a perennial garden spread up to one inch (2.5 cm) organic material between existing plants. A hand cultivator can blend the materials together or the organic material can be left as a mulch which will leach nutrients and over time be incorporated into the soil by worms.
Lawns benefit from a layer of organic matter or topdressing. Cut the grass short and spread the material over the lawn until it is a half to an inch (1 – 2.5 cm) thick.
Take advantage of the fall weather and add organic matter to the soil. There should be an improvement in the soil and next year’s garden.
Linda Tomlinson is a horticulturalist that lives near Rocky Mountain House. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org