Building the Soil: Part One

Reader Contribution by Laura Damron
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If you’ve been over to my blog recently, you may have noticed that things have been on the quieter side. I spent the better part of the last week listening to interviews from the Grow Your Own Food Summit, a collection of 34 presentations over seven days. It was intense; five presentations per day, each lasting 40 minutes to an hour. That’s a lot of information to absorb and process! Not to mention the tangential internet searching afterwards … there were days when I felt like I’d fallen down a rabbit hole. (I still kind of do … but that’s a good thing.)

One of the biggest things I took away from the talks was this recurring theme: the single most important thing we can do as gardeners is to feed our soil. Growing our own food is a close second, if not tied for first place – but they go hand in hand. It’s just not possible to grow nutritious and healthful food, without healthy, living soil.

Chemical fertilizers feed plants, make no mistake. They fall short on feeding the soil, however, and unless you have a soilless garden (such as a hydroponic setup, which is a whole other topic entirely), you’ll eventually deplete the soil of its organic matter. Once that happens, all we’re left with is the grit and rocks, which hold little in the way of nutrition and are easily eroded by wind and water. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s illustrates this concept perfectly.

So how does one manage the organic matter of their soil, exactly? I’m glad you asked. Cold or hot composting, layering (a.k.a. lasagna gardening), mulching and vermicomposting are all easily accessible to the home gardener, and are the foundations to building good soil. Even better is that these all cost less than commercial fertilizers, in the long run. I’ll cover layering, mulching and vermicomposting in another post; composting on its own is a broad enough topic for one day.

The first key to composting is the proper ratio of what are commonly called browns and greens. Brown ingredients are dry, high carbon items: leaves, straw, wood shavings, even shredded newspaper works fine. Greens are your wet, nitrogen-rich ingredients, like kitchen veggie scraps, fresh grass clippings, animal manure, and garden trimmings. For sanitary reasons, avoid putting oils/fats, meat scraps and dog feces into your compost – the average home pile doesn’t get hot enough to handle any potential pathogens. Diseased plants and aggressive weeds should be avoided as well – either throw them away or burn them, if you can.

You’ll want an even amount of browns and greens, to stabilize moisture levels – too many greens, and you get a soggy, stinky mess. Too many browns are also detrimental, drying out the pile and slowing it down. A well-balanced, evenly layered pile will become home to a host of organisms like earthworms, bugs, fungi and bacteria (among others) that will work diligently to transform these “waste” products into the rich, black humus we all know and love.

It’s not rocket science, and it doesn’t have to be complicated. Cold composting can be as simple as burying your food scraps in a hole or a trench, topping them off with some straw or dry leaves, and covering all of it back over with dirt. It can be a circle of wire fencing, just to keep things contained and tidy. We presently have a bin made out of recycled heat-treated pallets that we use here; it used to be compartmentalized, but since the pallets weren’t preserved, the one in the middle also broke down over time and composted. I think that took about six years to happen, and I didn’t see enough benefit in having the two sides separated to bother replacing the divider.

I turn our compost maybe once a year, and that’s more a byproduct of my digging out the finished product to add to the garden than a conscious effort. Whatever isn’t totally broken down when I’m taking out what I need gets tossed back in to one side, so it can finish its transformation. Our chickens visit the pile daily, and do an excellent job of aerating with their scratching and pecking. Plus they conveniently deposit their own manure into the mix while they’re at it. I’ve noticed that our compost happens much faster now, than it did before we had the flock.

If you’re in a big hurry, or are in an area where rats might be a problem, plastic bins and tumblers are a good way to make smaller batches of compost. When we lived in the city, we had two plastic bins and a constant supply of fresh organic matter each year, just by switching between the two: We’d fill one over the growing season through fall, letting it age over the winter while we switched to putting our scraps into the second bin. In the Spring, we’d empty out the bin and start layering in our new stuff, while the other one aged over the warm months, that batch being ready for fall application in the garden. Lather, rinse, repeat … it couldn’t have been easier.

Hot composting, on the other hand, is more labor intensive – it requires turning, which incorporates oxygen into the pile in greater quantities. This, in turn, ramps up the microbial activity, resulting in heat that then kills off pathogens and seeds at around 150 F. If I had a larger setup, and some way to mechanically turn the piles, I would definitely give hot composting a try. You can still do hot composting in smaller quantities, don’t get me wrong – the tumblers work on this principle – but my back can’t really handle it. If you have the energy to flip your pile once a month or so, then I say go for it! As usual, it’s all about finding a solution that works for you and doing that.

For a brief overview, this is getting pretty long – almost too much for a blog post! When you’re ready for some more information on composting, stop by the main Acorn and Thistle page – I’m putting together a resource and additional reading list, which will go up tomorrow. Next week, we’ll move on to layering and mulching, and if that’s not too beastly a post, we’ll finish up with vermicomposting. Otherwise, this might be a three-part series.

Do you compost already? If so, what tips would you offer to someone just starting out? 

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