Organic principles state that you nourish the soil to nourish the plants. This article covers the various materials, organic and inorganic, that you can add fruitfully to your garden to enrich the soil.
Every one except soot, which I cannot obtain, has at some time been added to my allotment plot. (Here in Britain, an allotment is a community garden, where individuals rent plots.)
Organic philosophy speaks of the living soil, a vibrant sphere of life whose constitution has so far defied full scientific description. A good soil contains much of a black colloid called humus, a range of particles of different types and minerals, along with water and a dazzling web of animal life. It is this living soil that the organic cultivator feeds.
There is No Such Thing as Waste
The word manure originally meant anything laid as nutrient on the ground, but in recent years it has come to mean dung. You should apply well-rotted manure to your soil. Some gardeners dig it in, but others lay it as mulch.
Gardeners say that cow manure is ideal, but horse manure is nearly as good, though it can contain weed seeds. Yet poultry manure is very rich. I purchase mine in pelleted form. Recently horse and cow manure have been harder to obtain here in Britain because of intense demand, and a supplier let me down. So my solution is to lay compost as mulch and then spread the plot with pelleted poultry manure. This technique has produced good results in the past.
Worm compost is a wonderful kind of manure. You make it in a worm composter, a container sealed to keep the brandling (tiger) worms in. They feed on small amounts daily, and you can use cooked food, though not meat.
Two products result: The compost is richer than any other kind of compost, and gardeners should spread it sparingly over the beds, as in excess it is too rich. The other is the vile smelling liquid that accumulates at the bottom and drain off through a tap. Do not apply this directly to plants, but mix it into the watering can to dilute it. It smells bad, but is a first class fertilizer.
Compost for the Garden
This provides the humus that is so necessary to a soil’s health. A good compost should be black and friable, which means crumbly. On my plot I use different kinds of compost. I have a black bin for kitchen compost, which contains non-cooked kitchen waste. Don’t use cooked food waste,eggshells or meat in compost, as they attract rats.
I also have compost heaps for the waste plant material from the allotment. Ericaceous compost is a specially acid kind that should only be used on acid-loving plants such as blueberries and cranberries. Mushroom compost, the spent products of mushroom growing, is entirely opposite to Ericacaceous compost, as it contains lime, which is a good soil nutrient. As brassicas (cabbages, kale, cauliflowers, etc.) need a soil with a bit more lime than other vegetables do, mushroom compost is great for them.
Peat is controversial, as it comes from peat bogs that may need protection. It provides few nutrients, but is great for improving soil structure and water retention. In Britain, gardeners are reducing the use of peat, but in Ireland, they continue to see peat as a natural resource, so I think that gardeners must make that decision on a country by country basis. Some gardeners are replacing peat with coir, which is a coconut-derived product.
Naturally Occurring Materials
On the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, seaweed was an essential soil nutrient for millenia. It is only as salty as land plants, though some gardeners hose sea salt off it before applying it to their ground, but this is not absolutely necessary.
Seaweed contains a broad range of trace elements and breaks down into a nourishing powder. You can acquire seaweed in liquid form, which you mix into your watering can, or you can get it as meal, which you apply as a powder, again mixed in water.
Leaves also are useful. Many gardeners have leaf-mould bins in which gardeners allow the Autumn (Fall) leaves to rot in a process that can take up to a year.
Gardeners should not put these into the compost heap, as compost, which decays through bacterial action, differs from leaves, which decay through fungal action. Gardeners should use only deciduous leaves.
On the other hand, gardeners can use leaves as a mulch. As far as possible, I like to cover my beds in winter with a mulch of fallen leaves. These break down in Spring and in the meantime protect soil from rain damage and keep it warm.
Other Substances Used in the Garden
When coal fires still lit London, the chimney sweeps used to have a sideline. Having swept the soot from London’s chimneys, they used to load it into carts to sell to farmers around London. The soot used to add carbon to the soil and would absorb the sun’s heat. However, farmers used to store it in barns for a time to the point when they deemed it ready for spreading. Growers can also add carbon through biochar, a kind of charred wood related to charcoal, which experts believe is nourishing to soil.
Lime, which adds calcium, can serve as an important soil additive. This essential element “sweetens” the soil and counters acidification. You can add lime by adding bone meal, which sometimes comes as part of blood, fish meal and bone fertilizer. However, a word of warning: Farmers used to insist that when adding bone meal they wore gloves, as they were convinced that it could be a vector for infections.Don’t take risks. I use gloves and spread it round using a trowel, which I dip into the bucket containing the bone meal.
A recent addition to the gardener’s arsenal is rock dust. Currently, British stocks come from a Scottish company that grinds down granite into powder that gardeners spread on gardens. Its purpose is to re-mineralize the soil, essential as in Europe and America soils have been losing minerals for years. I have used it and have not been disappointed.
Wood ash is a fine source of potassium for a garden. As someone with a wood burning stove, I collect the ash and take it to the allotment, where I spread it on the soil.
The Living Soil
When humans first trod this Earth, soil was already there. Since then we have faced a choice: waste it or preserve it. Exploitative methods use up the soil and we see it thinning and blowing away as dust; green methods grow the soil and make it thicker and richer.
The former treats the Earth as a mine to be plundered, though there is nowhere for us to go when it is exhausted. With the latter, we can treat the Earth as a sacred place , to be tended and nurtured.
The only way is the green one.