Garden soil amendments organic

Tag Archives : Organic Soil

Have you ever thought about setting up organic growing? Perhaps you think that having your own organic gardening is unfeasible and have not given it a serious thought. Well, it is time to have a rethink. What you may not be aware of is that many successful gardeners out there started out with as little knowledge as you. Having knowledge of gardening is very important if you are to succeed with this profitable venture. With the foregoing, examining some useful tips in this piece will be of great help.

Before you start your own organic growing, you should make plan for organic gardening supply and organic gardening fertilizer. Most of the materials you will use are mostly organic and you will need them to be able to grow organic vegetables and other plants. But when it comes to chemical fertilizers, care must be taken because of danger to plants, humans and the environment. Well, let us now examine those tips that will to make a success of organic gardening.

Tips to successful organic growing

Organic Soil: Organic gardening cannot succeed without a good soil, which is the heart of any garden. A healthy soil means a healthy organic garden. In order to keep the soil healthy, you need to provide it with as many organic matters as you can. A good soil with organic matters is very important because it will allow water, air and the roots to penetrate well. It has the ability to hold moisture and also drain excess water. So, the moment a good organic soil is achieved, all other else about an organic gardening will fall into place.

Organic Fertilizers: The major reason for setting up organic gardening is to use and utilize all-natural products and processes to produce a lush and bountiful harvest. Organic fertilizers are useful because it mimic nature and often slowly release nutrients into the soil. This is done through a steady process of breaking down the fertilizers into smaller particles that can be absorbed by the plants through their roots easily. This may not give immediate growth, but it will help to produce a more sturdy and healthy plant. It is a known fact that plants that grew rapidly as a result of the use of chemical fertilizers often have soft and succulent stems that are prone to pests and plant diseases. Thus, organic fertilizer is the best option.

Use Compost and Mulch: Some people called this “organic concoctions.” It is good to consider mixing them together and can be inexpensively done. Use them to effectively improve the overall condition of your garden. Mulch is a good soil conditioner that you should apply to your garden soil because it will effectively reduce weeds from taking over your garden. Compost is also a good a soil conditioner. It is not a fertilizer just like Mulch is not. Compost helps to add nutrients to the soil and also helps to retain moisture. The best part is that, these two can be made using materials that you do not need again.

In addition to the above, it is important to select lot of new and improved varieties for your garden growing. Visit garden centers or plant nurseries to get the best varieties of vegetable for your garden. With these tips mind, you will have it easy setting up your organic gardening.

Organic Soil

Why use Organic Soil?

So now you know what organic soil is, but what are the benefits to using it? There are quite a lot actually. The most obvious one is the environmentally friendly aspect of it. Using organic soil is using a soil that is made up of all natural ingredients. Simply put, it is putting soil made from the environment, back into the environment. That creates soil sustainability that over time continues to further enrich your soil. What does that mean for you? More lush, healthier plants, fruits and vegetables that are safe for you and your family and safe for the environment.

Organic soils can also save you time and money. Adding organic material to native soil helps contribute to the balance of drainage and retention of water. In most cases organic material helps keep water in the soil longer than synthetic soils. This means that what you are growing will have better access to the water it needs and that translates to less frequent watering.

Organic soils can help your plants resist pests and disease, avoiding the need to use chemicals and pesticides. Because organic soil is composed of nutrient and mineral rich elements, your plants will grow stronger cell wells, giving them added layers of protection from pests and disease. This eliminates the need to buy chemical heavy pesticides that introduce synthetic elements to your plants. The nutrients in organic soils also provide a natural protection making plants more resistant to diseases. All of this adds up to stronger pest and diseases resistant plants that save you from having to spend more to keep them healthy.

See Also: Feed Your Plants or Feed Your Soil?

Depending on your gardening needs and preferences organic soils come in a range of varieties and uses from organic potting soil to lawn soil and garden soil.

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Are you looking for the right kind of soil for your garden? Are you confused about the differences between organic and nonorganic?

Choosing the correct mixture of soil for your plants or vegetables can really affect how your crops turn out overall. Getting the potting right at the very start of your gardening project is what will determine whether you have a bountiful harvest of flowers or vegetables later on.

Here we look at organic potting soil vs non-organic soil mix. There are many benefits to both but there is so much information out there you may be left feeling confused about which would be the best for your backyard.

Table of Contents

Non-Organic Potting Soil

NON-ORGANIC:

  • Cheaper
  • Uses recycled products like Styrofoam
  • A mixture of three main ingredients
  • Free from contaminants
  • Neutral pH

Non-organic dirt doesn’t contain any organic matter which means it has neutral pH. It is also free from contaminants which organic soil may have been from organic matter.

Regular potting dirt is just a combination of peat, bark, and perlite or vermiculite. These are the main ingredients but different types and brands have different combinations of these key additions and some have added nutrients or minerals.

Peat moss can be used straight instead of as just part of the mixture but it makes the level of watering you have to give your plants difficult to monitor.

There are some non-organic dirt mixes that use Styrofoam to give more space for air in the soil as well as holding onto water. While these mixes are generally cheaper the Styrofoam does sometimes come to the surface of the dirt after a while and can blow away or look unsightly in your containers.

So basically, in a man-made dirt mix you have peat moss for moisture and it also helps to keep in nutrients, perlite or vermiculite (or sometimes recycled Styrofoam) is used to give more room for air and the bark is in there for extra nutrients and to add weight.

There are many different types of non-organic mixtures so the key is to make sure you get the right recipe for your plants and garden.

Organically Mixed Soil

ORGANIC:

  • Organic based matter
  • Free from chemicals
  • Specific blends for different plants
  • Different pH levels
  • Could contain contaminants

A great organic potting soil can not only help your plants thrive but you know that it is free from any pesticides or genetically engineered chemicals. Organic potting soil should contain a lot more organic material than regular potting soil.

A good natural mixture will have compost, seaweed, manure or mushroom compost, bat droppings, bone meal, soybean meal, soft rock phosphate, greensand, fish meal, blood meal, and worm castings. These things provide nutrients and minerals for your plants and garden.

Organic mixtures also contain acids which help the roots of a plant soak up more water, becoming more permeable, and this helps them take in more water and nutrients from the soil.

There are blends of naturally mixed soil for particular plants – orchids will need a different mix of minerals and nutrients than cactus for example. You can also get mixes that help with particular problems in your garden so if you need more aeration in your soil or improve the texture in your garden then there is a dirt type out there that can solve that problem.

The Best Way to Use Potting Soil

Understand your plant. Knowing what your plants need to survive and grow to the best of their ability will help you choose the right potting soil. For fruit like tomatoes, you will need a soil rich in nitrogen so read the ingredients on the bag. Most of the types of potting soil will have a list of the main ingredients as well as a percentage or proportion list of the main nutrients and minerals. This should help you choose the right dirt at a glance.

Don’t be tempted just to use soil dug from your garden, this will be full of old seeds, weeds and debris that you don’t want to contaminate your new plants. If you start your seeds or saplings in a container with a good quality potting material, it is proven they will do better overall than just planting them in any soil.

You don’t have to fill the whole container with potting dirt, the roots only go down a few inches so you just should sprinkle it on the top. Try to always use new soil every year, that way if you’ve had a disease or a bad crop (even if you didn’t notice it) you will risk your next year’s harvest.

Don’t just throw your old potting mixture out, though. Use it to spread around the garden and give your flower beds a boost.

If you’re still not sure about how to use your potting soil, there are some great videos online which can give you a step by step guide.

Conclusion?

If you’re looking for the best potting soil for your containers or garden, then a natural blend is the best way to go. Not only does it contain a higher level of minerals and nutrients, but it also has more organic natural matter.

A natural potting soil will be free from harmful chemicals and pesticides so if you are using it to grow vegetables then you know they will be safe to eat without the concern of harsh chemicals.

Garden Fundamentals – become a better gardener

You are in the market for some soil or compost and you visit the local nursery or big box store. There are so many products to choose from. Which one is the right one? Should you buy soil, or triple mix, or compost? Or is potting soil the right product to buy?

In this post I will try to sort out this confusion and show you which product to use for different types of jobs.

Planting trees – Soil profile showing top soil (layer O + A)

Different Types of Soil

In my last post, Topsoil, Compost, Triple Mix – What’s the Difference? I discussed the differences between topsoil, triple mix, compost, potting soil, black garden soil, peat moss and garden soil.

To simplify things, you never need to buy peat moss, unless you are making your own potting or seedling mix. It can be added to the garden, but compost and manure are better options.

Soil for Containers

The soil you use in containers should be light and airy. This is what plants want and it makes it easier for you to move the container. The best soil for this job is potting mix or potting soil – they are the same thing.

The problem with potting soil is that it dries out quickly. To reduce watering I like to add some garden soil or some topsoil to the potting mix so that it hold moisture longer. This also reduces the cost.

Soil for Garden Beds

Landscape beds or garden beds are the common beds used for growing shrubs, perennials or annuals. A lot of people buy top soil, or garden soil and add it to these beds each year. I have never understood this practice. You already have soil – why add more soil?

To better understand this, let’s look at what your soil needs. Most garden soil does not have enough organic matter in it. Organic matter feeds the plants, makes the soil more friable, adds more air to the soil, and feeds the all important microbes. Unless you have been adding organic matter to soil for years, your soil probably needs more.

Instead of buying soil which you already have, buy organic matter. Compost and manure are great choices for this. Do not dig this into the soil. Use it as a mulch and layer it on top of the soil. Nature will move it into the soil for you.

Stop buying soil for your garden beds.

Soil for an Existing Vegetable Bed

Assuming the vegetable bed already exists, this garden is no different than any other garden bed. What it needs is organic matter and both compost and manure are good choices.

Even for the vegetable bed it is best to add the organic matter as a mulch and leave it on top of the soil. Digging it into the soil destroys soil structure, increases weeds, and speeds up the decomposition of organic matter (ie it does not last as long). Dig as little as possible in your vegetable bed.

Another great option is straw. Use it as a mulch by itself or in addition to compost and manure. Cover everything with a layer of straw. You will have fewer weeds and the moisture will be retained in the soil longer. Straw slowly decomposes adding organic matter to soil.

Soil for a New Vegetable Bed

If you are building a new vegetable bed that is not raised you still do not need to buy soil. Buy organic matter as described above and add that to the soil.

When making the bed for the first time it is OK to dig in the organic matter as part of your preparation process. But do this just once when you first make the bed. In future years, disturb the soil as little as possible.

Soil for a Raised Bed

This situation is different than the ones discussed above. In this case you do not have enough soil and you do need to buy more. Many people will buy triple mix for this job. This seems to make sense. Triple mix is a combination of soil, peat moss, and compost. It is a great soil for growing things.

Triple mix also has a problem. Since 2/3 of the mix is organic matter, which decomposes over time, the level of the soil will go down each year. You will be constantly adding more soil to keep the level up. This is not a big problem in a vegetable bed or one that is used for growing just annuals, but it is not good for perennials and shrubs. In no time at all perennials and shrubs will be planted too high as the soil around them shrinks.

It is much better to make the bed using only top soil. Even this will settle over time, but not nearly as much as triple mix. When the bed is finished, plant and mulch with some organic matter. Over time the organic matter will be incorporated into the soil.

Soil for a New Lawn

Triple mix is the common product that is used to lay a new lawn. The grass, either seed or sod, will grow well in it. A thin layer of an inch or two is not a problem.

Adding more than a couple of inches will cause problems. Over time the soil shrinks as discussed about. As it shrinks the lawn gets lower. After a few years you will notice that the lawn is lower than the driveway or the sidewalk. This is caused by too much organic matter in the soil laid down before adding grass.

It is much better to use top soil under the grass and then top dress the lawn with organic matter on an annual or bi-annual basis.

Selecting the Right Soil

The first think to do is to figure out what problem you are trying to solve. Do you need to raise the level of the existing soil to make it higher? In that case add top soil. It is the one product that will maintain the desired level, but even it settles a bit.

If you want to add organic material then use compost or manure. Don’t add soil or a product that contains soil.

Containers are a special situation – use potting soil for them.

Things like triple mix, black garden soil, peat moss and garden soil are products that you should not be adding to the garden.

  1. Photo source; US Department of Agriculture, public domain

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When to Add Compost to Your Garden Beds

By Cathy Cromell, The National Gardening Association

A healthy garden starts with healthy soil. You don’t need to worry about applying miracle elixirs or wielding new-fangled tools. Adding compost to garden beds is the best — and easiest — thing you can do to produce a bumper crop of vegetables and bountiful bouquets of flowers.

How much compost you need to apply and how often you should apply it varies, depending on the typical soil characteristics and whether you garden year-round.

As a general rule, plan on incorporating compost into your beds before each planting season. When your planting season occurs and how many planting seasons you get each calendar year depends on geography.

Apply compost once per year if you live in cooler climes, such as the Northeast or Midwest United States, Canada, or the United Kingdom, where there’s one major growing season — from late spring to early fall.

Layer partially decomposed compost on empty beds in the fall, before the ground freezes, and let it decompose further through winter. All those lovely nutrients will be ready and waiting for your spring planting.

If you live in the South or Southwest United States, where a warm climate offers year-round gardening, you need to add compost twice per year to accommodate two distinct growing seasons — one cool and one warm — with different annual flowers, vegetables, and herbs planted and thriving in each period.

Because the ground never freezes in warmer climates, soil microbes are working year-round, plowing through organic matter faster than their cool-country cousins. Also, some warm-climate gardeners work with native soils that are naturally low in organic matter.

Here’s a general schedule for applying compost where year-round gardening is possible:

  • Cool season: The cool growing season extends from approximately mid-September through April, so add compost in late August or early September.

  • Warm season: Warm-season planting (which overlaps with the ongoing cool-season growth period), starts in mid- to late-February and runs through March, with warm-season plants continuing to grow through summer. Add finished compost before your area’s spring planting season.

    Alternatively, if your garden lies empty during intense summer heat, spread compost and let it cover the fallow soil to reduce erosion, combat weeds, and maintain moisture.

If you’re starting a new garden bed, first determine whether the soil is organically rich. This doesn’t have to be an exact science, so you can use a simple “eyeball test” — light-colored soil doesn’t contain as much organic matter as dark brown or black soil. Then follow these guidelines:

  • Soil with limited organic matter: Where soil isn’t organically rich, add 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimeters) of compost before each planting season.

  • Soil with plentiful organic matter: If you garden where soil is organically rich, 1 to 3 inches (3 to 7 centimeters) of fresh compost will suffice before each season.

The root systems of most annual flowers and vegetables remain within the top 12 inches (30 centimeters) of soil. Loosening up your soil to that depth helps roots penetrate freely to seek moisture and nutrients. Follow these recommendations for loosening soil and digging in compost:

  • If you’re lucky to garden where soil is already loose, easy to dig in, and drains readily, you can layer compost on top of the soil and dig it in to a depth of 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters) in one step.

  • If soil is compacted, drainage is poor, or you garden above a layer of hardpan (impenetrable subsoil that restricts water movement and root growth), you’ll grow a more successful garden if you first dig and loosen soil to a depth of 12 inches (30 centimeters). Then layer your compost on top of the soil and turn it under to a depth of 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 centimeters).

What Is the Difference Between Compost and Fertilizer?

The simplest way to distinguish between compost and fertilizer is to remember this: Compost feeds the soil and fertilizer feeds the plants.

Fertilizer adds to the soil’s nutrient supply, but instead of feeding the soil food web, the ingredients in fertilizers are intended to meet the needs of fast-growing plants. While recommended amounts of compost can be quite general, fertilizer application rates are based on the needs of plants. Either organic or conventional fertilizers work well for vegetables, but organic fertilizers have been shown to be friendlier to the soil food web. Chemical fertilizer can also feed composting, but continual use may throw soil chemistry out of balance and discourage microbes. See fertilizer to explore your fertilizer options.

Compost and organic fertilizers can work together. The organic matter in compost sponges up the fertilizer nutrients until they are needed by plants. Compost also provides many nutrients that plants need in small amounts, such as boron. You can use fertilizer without compost, but why miss an opportunity to increase your soil’s fertility and its ability to hold moisture? Soil that is regularly amended (i.e., improved) with compost becomes wonderfully dark and crumbly and often requires much less fertilizer compared to soil that has not yet benefited from regular helpings of compost.

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Do you have soil that is high in clay or sand? Here are some of my favorite organic soil amendments that can improve conditions for growing vegetables.

This article may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure for more info.

Gardeners often complain about having unworkable clay soil or sandy soil in which nothing will grow. We tend to think that our plight is totally unique compared to all of those *lucky* gardeners out there who naturally have perfect soil!

Truth is, the majority of gardeners have challenging soils that require improvement for cultivation. We are all special by not being unique! 🙂

Ideal garden soil will bring these two spectrums into balance. Loamy soil balances clay, sand, and organic matter. Organic soil amendments can help us do this.

Improving Soil Using Soil Amendments

Organic soil amendments can increase beneficial soil organisms, organic matter, and improve moisture retention.

The following list contains a variety of soil amendments from animal, mineral, and plant-based sources. Some items are free and easy to find locally, while you’ll have to purchase others.

In general, add soil amendments in the fall, or in the spring before planting the garden.

I’ve divided soil amendments into three categories: animal-, mineral-, or plant-based amendments.

Animal-Based Soil Amendments

Some animal-derived soil amendments can increase beneficial soil organisms in addition to improving soil structure. Safely apply untreated animal products nine months before harvest, or at a minimum of two weeks before planting.

Mineral-Based Amendments

Use mineral-derived soil amendments to correct mineral deficiencies. Mineral-based amendments do not break down easily, so they can be over-applied. That’s why it is essential to get a soil test beforehand so you don’t over-apply them.

Plant-Based Amendments

Use plant-based soil amendments to improve soil structure. It is important to source herbicide-free plant-based amendments in order to avoid contaminating the soil. Herbicide contamination results in low germination rates and curled/yellowing leaves.

Here are a few of my favorite amendments from each category:

1. Bat Guano (Animal-Based Amendment):

Bat guano is a fast-acting, organic fertilizer high in nitrogen and phosphorus, which promotes strong and healthy plant growth. It can also improve the texture of soil, improve drainage in heavy soils, and help to neutralize soil contaminants. By increasing beneficial bacteria in the soil, it helps to protect plants against disease.

Bat guano is highly concentrated, so a little goes a long way. As with other animal manures, mix into the soil in the fall, or at least two weeks before planting. This allows time for the nutrients to break down into a form that plants can absorb.

Note: This amendment is considered by many to be unsustainable, due to harvesting methods that may destroy cave habitat and negatively affect the health of bat populations. Although an excellent amendment, I recommend using caution and using many of the alternatives listed here.

2. Manure (Animal-Based Amendment):

Use livestock manure mainly as a slow-release fertilizer. That’s because it contains most of the elements required for plant growth including nitrogen and many other nutrients. It can also condition the soil, increasing beneficial soil organisms and moisture retention.

The manure can come from nearly any livestock animal, NOT dogs or cats.

When looking for livestock manure locally, seek out farms that pasture-raise their animals and feed them organic feed. Manure from other types of farms can include herbicide residues that will stunt plant growth.

Read more about contaminated manure and the serious problems it can create.

Spread fresh manure at least 3-4 months before harvesting a crop to avoid potential pathogens. Spread it in the fall or one month before planting. This timing will prevent it from burning plants.

Although aged manure contains less nitrogen than fresh manure, it makes an exceptional soil conditioner.

Turn manure into the soil within 12 hours of the time of spreading to capture the nitrogen in the soil. This will prevent it from leaching away. Spread fresh manure on ground that isn’t frozen or oversaturated by a recent rain.

If a heavy rain is in the near forecast, wait it out.

Many state laws include these common agricultural prohibitions, which is helping to reduce runoff from farm fields. This in turn keeps waterways clean. Plus, you don’t want all of your hard work and valuable nutrients to wash away!

Would you like to learn more about using natural amendments to improve the quality of your soil, reduce maintenance, and increase yield?

You’ll find loads of information just like this in my award-winning book, The Suburban Micro-Farm.

Worm compost

3. Worm Compost (Animal-Based Amendment):

Worm castings are the richest fertilizer known to humans, and is high in minerals. This soil amendment is also high in nitrate, a more bioavailable source of nitrogen than that found in commercial fertilizers.

Worm castings help plants regulate water usage, improve soil structure, and increase plant vigor. You can even use worm castings in place of potting soil. There is no upper limit to how much of this amendment you apply at one time.

Get worm castings here or learn how to create your own worm castings in a worm bin. Be sure to check out these worm bin problems for beginners.

4. Greensand (Mineral-Based Amendment):

Greensand is a slow-release soil conditioner. It is largely composed of glauconite, a mineral harvested from ancient forest floors. Greensand is considered high in potassium and trace minerals such as iron and magnesium.

Its main benefit, however, is loosening clay soil and improving moisture retention. Read more about improving clay soil.

Get greensand here. Apply it in early spring before planting.

Note: Do not confuse greensand with regular sand, which when mixed with clay soil, can produce a cement-like mixture.

5. Comfrey (Plant-Based Amendment):

Comfrey is a perennial herb with large green leaves and purple, pink, or white flowers. Comfrey’s deep roots condition and mine the subsoil for nutrients and accumulate those nutrients in its leaves. Its nutrient levels rival those of animal-based amendments.

Comfrey is used in many ways to fertilize soil. It can activate a compost pile due to its high nitrogen content. Use the chopped leaves as mulch around fruit trees and mature fruiting vegetable plants.

To use comfrey as a green manure in a vegetable garden, spread chopped leaves in the fall. Then turn them under in the spring before planting.

Get comfrey root cuttings here.

Use comfrey powder to fertilize a garden bed in the spring before planting. To read more about comfrey’s benefits, see my articles Growing Comfrey and 7 Comfrey Uses in the Permaculture Garden.

6. Compost (Plant-Based Amendment):

Homemade compost made from food scraps and yard waste is an inexpensive, slow-release fertilizer and soil conditioner for the garden. It’s also a great way to keep household waste out of the waste stream.

Only use compost that is completely decomposed in garden soil. That’s because the biological activity in compost that is still decomposing can compete with crops for nutrients. This has the potential to substantially reduce germination rates.

Got a compost pile that is slow to break down? This happens when there is not enough nitrogen, or green matter. It’s a common problem in backyard compost systems. Get your compost heating up with this organic-certified compost accelerator.

Homemade compost improves the structure of soil by aerating existing soil, improving drainage as well as moisture retention. Add 3-4 inches of compost to garden soil each spring before planting and work it in with a digging fork.

For perennials, spread compost annually around trees and shrubs without working it into the soil.

To learn more about composting, see my article Building a Compost Bin (5 Ways).

7. Cover Crops (Plant-Based Amendment):

Cover crops increase soil fertility, improve soil texture, and increase beneficial soil organisms and fungi. All of these benefits together can help to reduce pests and disease. Sow cover crops in garden beds in the fall, about four weeks before the frost date.

Overwintered, by springtime cover crops are full and lush, outcompeting early spring weeds. When they begin to flower or set seed heads, cut them back just above the soil line. After a couple of days, incorporate the “green manure” into the soil with a digging fork, breaking up roots.

Many micro-farmers use livestock such as chickens to help turn cover crop residue into the soil.

Wait three weeks before planting in the bed.

There are many kinds of cover crops. The mixture that is right for you will depend on your local climate and your goals. If your garden is a no-till garden, avoid grass-type cover crops since they will be a challenge to hand-turn into the soil.

Your local extension office can help you choose appropriately.

When cover cropping, alternate keeping a few garden beds for overwinter vegetable production, while planting the rest in cover crops.

Leaf mold

8. Leaf Mold (Plant-Based Amendment):

Leaf mold is simply leaf mulch that has aged for two to three years. It can benefit the garden in many ways. The consistency of leaf mold lies somewhere between shredded leaves and leaves that have composted completely into humus.

This soil amendment is effective as a water-retaining mulch or soil conditioner.

When hot weather strikes, lay leaf mold over the garden as mulch, keeping it away from the stems of plants. It has a cooling effect on soil. As the mulch breaks down, it will attract beneficial soil organisms while transforming into humus.

To make leaf mold, shred the leaves first by running over them with a lawnmower, or by using a leaf mulcher.

To make “quick” leaf mold, make a rectangular pile of shredded leaves that is 5 feet square by 5 feet high. Turn the pile monthly, and you might be able to make leaf mold in as little as 12 months, though the process usually takes a couple of years.

As a soil conditioner, add finished leaf mold to garden soil in the fall, then mix it in with a digging fork in the spring before planting.

9. Wood Chips (Plant-Based Amendment):

With the growing popularity of the film Back to Eden, gardeners are adding wood chips at an accelerated rate. However, it is important to know how to use this soil amendment correctly.

Adding wood chips is like mimicking the forest floor, where leaves and twigs naturally decompose on top of the soil. Wood chips increase organic matter, improve nutrient levels, and increase the numbers of beneficial soil organisms as they break down.

They hold in moisture, reducing irrigation needs. Covering the ground, they reduce weeds. Wood chips create a stable growing environment by insulating against the hot summer sun and freezing winters.

Use wood chips as mulch rather than tilling or mixing them into the soil.

To use wood chips in the vegetable or perennial garden, age them for two or three years before mixing them into garden soil as an amendment, and add a teensy amount of blood meal with them to make up for lower nitrogen availability.

Or lay fresh wood chips on top of the soil as mulch without mixing them in.

I prefer to use wood chips in the pathways of my vegetable garden. That’s because beneficial soil organisms and fungi will enjoy plowing through my beds between the pathways.

Tree trimmers often deliver wood chips for free. For example, I have access to an arborist who delivers a trailer-load for a $20 fee.

Summary

Focus on increasing soil life and soil structure to help your growing conditions. First, focus on those soil amendments that you can make for free. They will often have the biggest impact because they will jumpstart biological activity.

Later, if you choose to add a store-bought amendment, such as greensand, you can purchase less of it. This will maximize the efficiency of your efforts and reduce your micro-farming costs, too.

READ NEXT:

  • 4 Berry Bushes that Fertilize, Too!
  • How to Prevent Soil Erosion in Gardens and on Farms
  • Mulching in the Permaculture Garden

Resources:

  • Soil Biology Primer by Elaine Ingham
  • Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels
  • The Suburban Micro-Farm: Modern Solutions for Busy People by Amy Stross (shameless plug!)

Whether your challenge is sandy or clayey soil, these amendments will help improve your gardening success.

What type of soil do you deal with? What soil amendments have helped improve it?

A Budget-Friendly Guide to Organic Fertilizer and Soil Amendments

Miracle Gro® 24-8-16
Spectrum 15-30-15
Shultz 10-5-10

Manure Content Comparison

These manures are better fertilizers, and due to the amount of undigested fiber in some of them, they also make fine soil conditioners.

Sometimes you’ll find manures mixed into bulk materials such as straw or shavings. This is often termed “bedding” and can include manure from a number of animals. Note how low the content numbers are for the bulk materials list compared to that of the manures. Bedding itself can drag down an overall fertility rating. When evaluating bedding, note the amount of actual manure present. If the bedding is composed of shavings, which contain no nitrogen, and it is combined with a little horse manure that is only 0.7 percent nitrogen, you’re getting no boost whatsoever. In fact, due to a complex process by which soil breaks down woody matter, your soil can actually end up less fertile than when you started. This is why knowing the nutrient content really matters.

Bulk Materials

These materials make better mulches or soil amendments and may benefit from being used with a supplemental nitrogen source.

Anyone can go out and buy manures or compost by the bag from a home improvement store, but using them to treat a sizable area becomes expensive. For many types of organic matter such as manures, obtaining it in bulk is the most economical way to amend a sizeable garden.

To amend raised beds, try using buckets, such as the ones cat litter comes in, to transport materials. Another method is to use heavy-duty plastic garbage bags. Fill them only one-third full or less to prevent tearing, then pack them into the trunk of your car or haul them. If you don’t own a pickup truck or can’t find one to borrow, try renting a little trailer to haul behind your car. Beware of hauling right after it’s rained because these materials, if they have been stored outdoors, can become considerably heavier to load and haul. This is why many experienced gardeners haul their soil materials in the dry, fall months to stockpile until they are ready to till it in spring.

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The Manure Safari

In some cases, the only way to buy manure is by the bag, so start keeping your eyes open for sales where the prices on cow manure may drop for a short time. That’s the best time to stock up whether you need it right away or not. Bagged poultry manure, along with some other animal waste, rarely contains bedding materials. It may be composted and sterilized, which means it is free of weed seeds and not likely to “burn” plants. But again, this costs money.

The concept of a manure safari is to scope out inexpensive or free sources of bulk manures in your area. Remember that, to most people, manure is waste product that they must get rid of, and they are usually thankful that you are willing to pick it up. This stuff won’t be composted or sterilized, but that’s never stopped old-fashioned gardeners from growing massive crops.

Dairies and Stockyards: Dairies and stockyards offer the best source of manure with minimal weed seeds. Cows have three stomachs, which means they digest more weed seeds than other livestock. (They do not digest all, however.) A dairy or stockyard is the best place to obtain large quantities that can turn a backyard kitchen garden into a really fabulous producer in a single season.

Farms: Farms are often rich in all sorts of manures. You may be able to clean out a chicken coop in exchange for some buckets of free, high-powered organic “fuel.” Poultry manure has the richest amount of nitrogen of all livestock manures, and a small amount goes a long way.

Ranches: The environmental impact of manure runoff makes it mandatory for ranchers to strictly control accumulations, so you may be doing them a favor by carting it away.

Horse Stables: The equestrian set loathes flies, which are drawn to manures, and will do nearly anything to keep the shavings and manure off the property. You’ll often find police stables in the midst of a city, and don’t overlook racetracks where huge stables are located behind the scenes.

Fairs: Every year livestock are brought to state and local fairs, generating a great deal of concentrated manure.

Colleges and Universities: Those with agricultural or veterinary programs are excellent resources for manures and other byproducts.

Rooftop Pigeon Coops: City pigeon keepers keep the cages on the roofs of apartment buildings. While pigeon manure may be too potent to use directly, it can be mixed into rooftop vegetable garden soils or compost bins for a big fertility boost.

More Manure Sources: Pet stores (but only if it is not from cats or dogs), exotic bird breeders, petting zoos, wild animal parks.

Agricultural Byproducts

Many agricultural products must undergo extensive processing in order to become market-ready, and often there are organic byproducts that result. Some of these byproducts are in high demand such as cottonseed meal or olive pomace, which are turned over to other manufacturers. Among these processors are quality organic fertilizer makers who combine them in exact recipes for easy-to-use pellets. But pelleted organic fertilizers are expensive, if you can even find them locally. You’ll save money and enjoy a great organic garden if you research what’s available in your immediate area and whether it would make good compost or if it can be tilled straight into the soil. You’ll derive benefits similar to the pellets for a fraction of the price.

Hulls and Shells

Grains such as rice, buckwheat, and oats are encased in thin, fibrous hulls. After harvest the grains are processed and the hulls removed. Rice hulls are one of the great, undiscovered soil amendments because they resist decomposition, are lightweight, and are finely textured. Although rice is only grown in certain areas, they will be an inexpensive or free resource if they’re nearby. Contact your nearest state agricultural office to inquire whether there are any processing plants or farmers, co-operatives nearby. Often the hulls are stockpiled there and free if you pick them up.

Nuts also form within a hull, but these tend to be thick and fleshy. Inside a hard, dry shell holds the edible kernel within. The hulls are valuable because they will decompose (with time) and are excellent organic matter to hold open heavy soils such as adobe clay. Nut shells may also take a very long time to decompose, which makes them excellent as functional and decorative surface mulches depending on the type of nut. Ground walnut shells are in high demand for landscaping because of their density, uniformity, and color. Walnut hulls, on the other hand, are not useful; they’re too rich in tannin and can cause staining. Pecan shells are widely available in Southern states while almonds are a significant crop in California. Peanut shells are soft and fibrous, which makes them an excellent mulch or soil amendment. Packing houses that process fruits like peaches or cherries leave an abundance of pits, which may be of considerable value for soil improvement when they’re crushed.

Pomace

Pomace is a term given to the residue of olives, fruits, and grapes after processing, either at packing houses or wineries. Pomace consists of skins and seed fragments that contain only scant quantities of nutrients, but the seed makes a good soil amendment or addition to compost. Pomace is not as “clean” as hulls or shells, but it is usually free. It’s far easier to handle if the pomace has had time to fully air dry before you transport it. This makes it more lightweight to move and less prone to fermentation odors, particularly in the heat of summer. Grape pomace is a good product available in California and in all other American wine-producing regions.

Cotton Gin Waste

Cotton gin waste is another old-time byproduct of the Cotton Belt. Like hulls, cotton gin waste contains very little nutrition, but if obtained inexpensively enough it is useful for soil conditioning or for adding to a compost heap.

Straw

Straw is inexpensive, easy to buy, and nicely packed into an easy-to-handle bale. A bale will slide into the back of a minivan or the trunk of a larger passenger car. You can buy straw from feed stores and garden centers. Its origin is most often wheat, but you can also get rice straw and other forms unique to certain agricultural areas.

Straw is popular with vegetable gardeners as a surface mulch to block weeds between widely spaced rows and to keep your feet out of wet ground. It’s easy to transport in a wheelbarrow, and a well-compressed bale opens up to a very large mass of material. Straw is used around the bases of the plants to keep them more evenly damp during very hot weather; it also shades the root zones and keeps them cool. After straw has decomposed over a growing season, it can be tilled back into the soil in the late fall or early spring.

For new homes and freshly graded homesites, erosion control is vital to keeping runoff from carrying away exposed soil particles. Straw is the least expensive material to do that. It also is often used by highway departments to broadcast over a new slope; then it’s punched in with shovels to hold it in place over the rainy season. These anchorages make a perfect place for grass seed tossed for erosion control to lodge and grow. Anyone planting open spaces, slopes, and pastures on sloping ground will benefit from this technique.

Since straw is so easy to get, you can stockpile any excess in a corner of the garden to gradually break down. Or, open a whole bale and separate the flakes. Throw a few shovels of native soil in between each flake of straw as it piles up. This is a great way to begin a lazy gardener’s compost pile. Occasionally add handfuls of fertilizer or manure with high nitrogen content to the pile along with anything else, such as old potting soil or kitchen refuse, to introduce microorganisms. Forget it for a year or two. The result will be an excellent amendment for clay soil that will go a long way for pennies.

Cover Crops and Green Manures

In the past, farmers didn’t have the ability to haul truckloads of manure, and synthetic fertilizers weren’t available, so they learned to grow their soil fertility. For centuries farmers planted fallow fields in temporary cover crops of leguminous plants. Legumes have the unique ability to transform nitrogen from the air and transfer it into the soil where they are growing, thus leaving the ground more fertile than before. These unique plants include many different types of clover, alfalfa, and peas. After a legume plant dies, there is a lot of nitrogen trapped in its stems and roots. When legumes are tilled into the earth, they release a boost of natural nitrogen.

Budget gardeners can take full advantage of this to improve larger sites and vegetable plots. Green manure is also the best way to rehabilitate a homesite that has extensive grading and soil disturbance. Often when a house is built on subsoil, you must build the ground up considerably in order to have a successful garden.

Choosing the right legume for your region may require some professional guidance from a farm advisor or neighbor familiar with local conditions. Some legumes are sown in fall to prepare for a spring garden. You can do this every year if you wish, which will cause the soil to gradually grow richer and richer. Legume seeds are sold by organic garden outlets or local farm supply stores where they’ll know the varieties and planting times that are best for your climate.

Budget Gardener’s Secret Weapon

Planting cover crops isn’t always possible for a variety of reasons, but here’s a shortcut that achieves much the same result in the garden for only slightly more money. Alfalfa, a legume, is a common baled livestock feed, and when used to enhance soil, its nutrient content is nearly identical to that of some manures. Baled alfalfa is a compressed, preserved cover crop that you can take apart and spread throughout your garden. It can be used in lieu of straw as a mulch in the first year, then tilled in at season’s end. If you spread it in fall, run your lawn mower over the alfalfa to further chop it into smaller bits that will be easier to work into the soil in spring. Or, just spread and till it in during fall to generate nutrients and add organic matter as it decomposes over winter. This technique is a budget gardener’s secret weapon to starting a new garden on the road toward high fertility for very little cost compared to bagged compost and other similar products. Using a bale also adds ease of transportation to its features.

If you take the alfalfa idea a step further, consider yet another technique for green manure that costs a bit more—pelleted alfalfa feeds. Organic gardeners rave about these as ornamental mulches because they are an attractive and easy-to-use form of green manure. Pellets are simply alfalfa that’s been chopped up and compressed into a more manageable form that can be used on food and herb gardens as well as for ornamental plants such as roses. Distribute the pellets into the soil or around a plant and in a short time they’ll disintegrate into the ground, offering both nitrogen and organic matter.

Green Choices

Alfalfa pellets are a great alternative for urban gardeners who may not have access to much organic matter or manure. Although processing and packaging drives the price of pellets up, there is no better way to get a good start on organic gardening.

Forest Byproducts

With high prices and slowdowns in the logging industry, the cost of forest byproducts has become limited and expensive. The landscape industry uses ground bark of various conifers as decorative mulch because of its beauty, uniform color, and texture. But this is so costly that landscapers use a very thin layer useful only for aesthetics. It’s too thin a layer to obtain the other important benefits of mulching.

It takes a layer at least two inches thick to block weed germination, retain soil moisture, and shade the root zone as well as cover unattractive ground. The better choice is wood chips, the byproducts of many tree-and vegetation-related industries. The most common source is wood chips generated by tree trimming companies that chip their branches to reduce the cost of disposal. If there is a tree trimmer in the neighborhood running a chipping machine, don’t hesitate to ask if you can have the chips. Be willing to offer them a six-pack or some money for the favor and be prepared to receive a large pile in the driveway.

Landfill composting programs are one of the smartest innovations in green urban waste management. They grind up the matter into chipped mulches, which are then made available for people in the community who are willing to load and haul it themselves.

Shavings are finer than wood chips and make a useful soil amendment, particularly where soils are heavy clay. The landscape industry uses nitrolized shavings, which are treated with an extra dose of synthetic nitrogen so that they can decompose without nitrogen losses in the soil. You can buy ordinary shavings in tightly packed bales, but this is not particularly cost effective. Strive for free sources such as a high school woodshop, the super source for urban gardeners scrounging for organic matter. The same is true for cabinetmakers’ shops and lumberyards that cut wood to order for their customers. Don’t overlook woodlots where firewood is sold, too, because there you’ll find all sorts of bark and wood byproduct accumulations.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Small Budget Gardener by Maureen Gilmer, published by Cool Springs Press.

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