As someone said, soil is for the garden what the soul is for the body.
Everything that is going to grow in the garden depends on the fertility and quality of the soil. That’s why gardeners must pay special attention to building healthy soil in their gardens. The major four components of soil are: minerals, water, air and organic matter.
Soil is a habitat for a variety of organisms: bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, small mammals etc. They transform organic matter into rich compost, called humus. It is a key to healthy and sustainable soil as it comprises nutrients and stores water.
Soil texture depends on the proportion of sand, silt and clay in it. Soil fertility refers to the balance of nutrients, minerals, organic matter, soil life, acidity and soil structure. The main three nutrients for plant growth are: nitrogen (N),phosphorus (P) and potassium (K).
Nitrogen forms new cells and is essential to plant development. It aids to break down old plants while making compost. Phosphorus produces strong seed and root development. Potassium helps produce strong stems. It advances root growth and helps plants resist disease and cold weather.
Different nutrient shortages or excesses will produce different symptoms with the plants we are growing. By adding organic matter we can fix the soil and balance the fertility. Organic matter is biological material in the process of decomposing.
We can use raked leaves, vegetable trimmings, garden debris and other vegetal material to produce compost in a composter. Composters can be of different types: slow outdoor pile, hot outdoor pile, bins and boxes, tumblers, pit composters, sheet composters, plastic bags or garbage cans and worm composters. Since we have bin composters in place in our garden, let’s see how they work and what is our job in order to make them as effective as possible.
Bins provide for organic matter to break down under certain conditions. Bins are tidy, compared to open composters. It is easy to turn the material in it without making a mess. The lid on it protects it from animals. Wire mesh protects the access to rodents. They help hold heat as the compost “works”, increasing the likelihood that weed seeds and pathogens will be destroyed.
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Wood and Wire Stationary 3-Bin System
1. Set up the collector near the garden and near the water. Soil underneath can be loosen a bit to aid drainage.
2. Make the first layer: loosely place leaves, hay, straw or other good composting material in the bottom of the collector in a layer about 2 inches thick.
3. Add protein material. Sprinkle a large handful of alfalfa meal or other protein-rich meal over the first layer. Dust the entire surface.
4. Do it again. Repeat steps 2 and 3 by adding the same amounts of organic matter and meal as before.
5. Sprinkle with water. Moisten the pile thoroughly. Compost piles that don’t “work’ well, are usually too dry or too wet. The material should be moist, but not soaked. In warm, dry weather you may need to add water every 3-4 days to keep it in a good working condition.
6. Keep the center loose, never compact the center of the pile. The composting process depends on the ability of the air, water and activator to contact all the material as completely as possible. Good circulation is necessary. A good compost pile is a composition of one third air, one third water and one third material.
7. Fill the collector. Whenever material becomes available, repeat steps 2 to 6, until the collector is full. Keep everything loose, and never tightly packed down.
8. Turn the pile in a week. If the pile is made correctly, the temperature should be 140-150 F within 2 or 3 days. After a week or so of heating and decomposing, it’s time to turn the pile.
Recipe for compost
To get organic material to compost properly, mix materials so that the mixture is about 30 parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen. The mixture with too much carbon, such as a pile of leaves, will not heat up, while a mixture with too much nitrogen will produce ammonia, and the nitrogen will be wasted. In the recipe below the ratio of carbon and nitrogen is 30:1.
ground corn cobs 50-100
pine needles 60-110
oak leaves 50
young weeds 30
grass clippings 25
manure with bedding 25
vegetable trimmings 25
animal droppings 15
leguminous plants 15
Finding Additional Materials for Greater Compost
Besides the garden, next immediate source is the neighbourhood.
People are often glad to give away raked leaves and grass clippings. The same is often true for wood stove and fireplace ashes, high in phosphorus and potassium.
Even a local barber can be a source of the garden fertility. Human hair contains about 12% nitrogen and will speed the decomposition of other organic material in the garden.
Consider also manufacturing activities in your area. Apple pumice from cider pressing is high in potassium and phosphorus, basic plant foods.
Brewer’s waste from beer making is also rich in potassium. Feathers from poultry processing contain about 15% nitrogen, while eggshells roughly 1%.
Scraps and lint from wool and cotton also contain fertilizing elements.Cannery wastes are another good source of organic matter: pea and bean pods, potato skins, corn cobs, peanut shells and the like will boost soil fertility.
Supermarkets trim away unsightly parts of vegetables and you can collect them. Saw mills can supply you with sawdust.
The compost is ready for use when it resembles black, fluffy soil and has a sweet, “earthy” smell. Compost is best used within a few months after being ready – the longer it is kept, the more nutrients will decompose and leach away. As the compost continues to break down, its soil texture-improving qualities diminish as well. Compost is most often used to enrich the soil, not as a fertilizer.
Large scale addition of compost in a garden is best done in the fall. It may be simply spread in the ground, or better, tilled in. It may also be worked in the soil in spring, several weeks before planting.
A shovelful of compost mixed in planting holes for peppers, eggplant, members of cabbage family, melons, cucumbers and squash will help them grow and/or send out strong, healthy vines.
Compost is also used to side-dress hungry crops.Screen the compost with a sieve, then mix it into the seedbed, or use it to cover fine seeds during planting. The screened mixture can also be used to top-dress lawns in the spring or fall, or mixed 1:2 with potting soil for container gardening.
Last, but not least, brew compost tea by adding one spoon of compost per one litre of water, mixing often during 3-4 days, then straining, to pour on your plants to enrich soil or troubleshoot pests and mold.
“Country Wisdom and Know-How” (2004, Black Dog &Leventhal Publishers)
For More Information
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