It's that time of year again, the days are growing longer and warmer. There is new life everywhere you look from grains sprouting in the fields to baby animals taking their first breaths. It's time to get started on your garden! Today we will discuss soil profiles and get into the basics of composting!
Soil and why it's the most important aspect of your entire garden.
I dare you to try and find a gardener that believes different! Soil is the base of every healthy and high yield garden. Selecting fertilizers and preparing your soil is an important part of planning your garden. But before we get into the type of soil best for gardening, let's discuss what soil actually is and why it is so important to not just your garden but also to life itself.
According to the USDA:
“Soil is a natural body comprised of solids (minerals and organic matter), liquid, and gases that occurs on the land surface, occupies space, and is characterized by one or both of the following: horizons, or layers, that are distinguishable from the initial material as a result of additions, losses, transfers, and transformations of energy and matter or the ability to support rooted plants in a natural environment.”
So from this definition we can deduce that soil is really just decomposed dead stuff – leafs, rocks, plant matter, fecal matter, and even dead animals arranged in naturally occurring layers, called ‘horizons' in earth science.
Soil is a non-renewable resource on earth. It is considered such because it's loss cannot be recovered within a single human lifespan. According to the FAO (the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations) it is estimated that 33% of land is moderately to highly endangered and degraded due to soil erosion, acidification and chemical pollution.
In gardening we concern ourselves mostly with horizon A – topsoil. Due to the above factors, as well as other local environmental conditions, many gardeners are very picky about where their topsoil comes from, this is especially important when practicing flat earth gardening. Flat earth gardening is when you clear an area and plant directly into the ground.
Very few gardeners are lucky enough to live in an area where flat earth gardening is possible without enriching the soil profile – which can be a process that takes months or even years!
An alternative to flat earth gardening is raised bed gardening. There are many advantages to raised beds especially if you are a beginner gardener or live in an area where your local soil profile isn't ideal for planting!
Some of the advantages are better critter, soil and weed control. But just like with flat earth gardening, even in raised beds, we will eventually need to enrich our soil as our plants use up the available nutrients and the easiest way to do that is, you guessed it, compost!
So how do we enrich our soil? There are lots of chemical fertilizers you can purchase or industrial composts that will do the trick quickly however we are only focusing on the organic alternative composting today – this may take longer but it is well worth it.
Compost – it's more than just poop!
Composting is a great way to not only recycle your scraps but also to improve your overall soil profile and achieve an ideal loamy* topsoil.
You can use it in several ways; by tilling it into your soil, by dressing the roots of your seedlings during planting or as a mulch to fertilize your mature plants.
Composting is a natural process that occurs when certain aerobic conditions are present. During composting various microorganisms, including bacteria and fungi, break down organic matter into simpler substances that will eventually make up our compost fertilizer.
The effectiveness of the composting process is dependent upon the environmental conditions present within the composting system i.e. oxygen, temperature, moisture, material disturbance, organic matter and the size and activity of microbial populations.
Contrary to popular belief, composting is not a mysterious or complicated process. Natural recycling (composting) occurs on a continuous basis in the environment. Organic matter is metabolized by microorganisms and consumed by invertebrates such as worms. The resulting nutrients are returned to the soil to support plant growth.
Compost is made up of four different components; green materials, brown materials, water and oxygen.
Greens are materials are rich in nitrogen which your plants need to grow big beautiful green leafs. We call them greens because they are fresh and moist. Examples of greens are; coffee grounds & paper filters, vegetable scraps, fresh plants & leafs, grass clippings and manure (preferably cow, rabbit or horse)
Browns are materials that are rich in carbon which is needed to break down the materials you add to the pile. Carbon is what feeds the microbes that aid in natural decomposition. Examples of browns are; dead leaves, old bread, straw & hay, wood chips, undyed hair clippings, dryer lint and eggshells.
There are certain materials you may think would be fine to add to your compost pile but they're actually not! When in doubt, look it up before adding. A few of the things you should NOT compost are; weeds of any kind, charcoal, diseased plants, cat & dog manure/urine, meat scright, bone, dai90 products and chemical treated mulch, lumber & sawdust.
There are two types of composting hot and cold. Neither is better than the other, it's just a matter of how quickly you want your compost and what is best for your life style.
Hot composting is the most common type of composting, it involves using 2 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen which causes the pile to literally heat up. If this is done correctly your compost pile will reach temperatures up to 155° F within 24-48 hours. A hot compost generally yields usable compost within a matter of weeks.
In hot composting you will need to physically turn your pile at the least once weekly. You can turn your pile with a shovel, rake or any number of garden tools. You can also purchase or build your own “compost barrels” which usually has a lever you use to turn the barrel and compost inside easily.
Additionally you should make sure to maintain it's dampness levels close to that of a rung out washcloth – the more frequently you turn your pile and allow more oxygen to enter the faster the process.
Cold composting requires very little effort but can take upwards of a year depending on the size of your compost pile to produce useable compost. To cold compost you add your greens and browns as you acquire them, I recommend chopping up your materials to accelerate the rate of decomposition. Cold composting is right for you if you have lots of space and little time to tend to your compost pile.
So how do we know when our compost ready? Texture, color and smell. The easiest way, for me personally, to tell if compost is good and ready is to smell it. Good compost should not smell “bad”, it should smell like earth right before the rain mixed with fresh cut grass or like the soil smell you get when opening a fresh bag of it from the store.
*loamy: The type of soil that gardens and gardeners love is loamy soil. It contains a balance of all three soil materials—silt, sand and clay—plus humus. It has a higher pH and calcium levels because of its previous organic matter content. Loam is dark in color and is mealy—soft, dry and crumbly—in your hands. It has a tight hold on water and plant food but it drains well, and air moves freely between soil particles down to the roots.