“Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Soil & the Making of Soil”

Now that we have covered the basics of home & garden maintenance for each month of the year (*see previous articles “Through the Seasons”), we will begin to explore, in more detail, these various tasks and the “how-to’s” of developing self-sustainable home & garden practices from these tasks:

everything from composting to “D.I.Y.’s” on ways of making use of plants and yard debris for a wide range of applications, harvesting to canning, seed-saving to plant-starting, “primitive” natural soap-making, edible and medicinal uses of various common weeds to homemade pigments, instruments and more!

To begin, we will be looking at, arguably, one of the easiest and most important practices one can adopt toward cultivating a more sustainable garden environment & routine. COMPOSTING! I can tell you of all the gardeners I have ever met, inevitably the most successful ones are those who recognize that good, consistent “soil stewardship” is the key to a healthy, stable and productive lawn and garden.. The benefits go far beyond just healthier lawns & gardens, to everything from prevention of infestations, plant diseases, erosion to flooding issues and other property damage, to saving money on water bills, greatly increasing your property value, to significantly reducing methane gas emissions, toxic run-off contamination of ground water & waterways, etc. from yard waste sent to landfills, and more!

First, a brief definition of terms is in order. I’m often asked if the terms “compost” and “mulch” are interchangeable or different things altogether. The short answer is organic mulch essentially the mix of composting materials, as they appear just before they are fully broken down into “finished compost”, where the mulch will look more like some compost with a bunch of partially broken down woody chucks and other course materials mixed in. Although, technically, the term “mulch” is sometimes used to include inorganic and processed materials, for all practical (and our) purposes here, we will referring to, specifically, organic mulch, as derived from yard & garden debris. Compost, here, refers to the fully decomposed, finer grained, nutrient rich & ready soil, as results from your successfully executed composting effort!

The next question, inevitably, is “so what’s the difference?”. The short of it here (apart from visible textural composition differences, etc.) has a bit more to do with the intended application. As I always tell my clients, “Mulch in the Fall, compost in the Spring”. If you are getting your veggie starts planted, containers, planting new additions to your garden, or else are otherwise needing a “nutrient ready”, fine and even grain soil. *(We will be covering other differences, in more detail and in other contexts, later in this article.) Mulch, on the other hand, 1.) it’s course, chunky texture is great for breaking up, amending soils with drainage, aeration, etc. issues 2.) a layer of mulch added on top of roots of vulnerable trees and plants provide an effective layer of protection from Winter damage and in the Summer helps retain moisture 3.) helps reduce weeds in garden beds 4.) raked into lawns, as part of Spring and Fall lawn care/repair routine, in order to maintain ideal conditions proper air and water soil penetration, thus stronger and deeper grass root establishment, making for a more drought, disease and heavy traffic resistant lawn. 5.) helps address erosion issues. 6.) and, in another way, you might also think of it as “slow release” nutrient source. The “nutrient rich and ready” compost might not be the better option, late in the season, for protecting vulnerable plants from Winter damage if said nutrient ready compost stimulates unseasonable early plant grow and activity, to potentially be damaged by frigid temperatures and icey conditions about to hit. 7.) and more.


Starting with the “WHY’s” of composting….

Q: “Why compost?”

A: “Composting is a great way to recycle all the yard waste produced from regular maintenance of your yard, and by means of the natural decomposition process, convert it into healthy, well structured and nutrient rich humus for replenishing soil in lawns & garden beds. Nutrients are broken down into a form plants can access and provides an excellent, balanced natural plant feed as well as protective cover. Fresh compost helps maintain a more balanced, neutral soil Ph, which makes it possible for a much wider range of plants to be able to access the nutrients available in the soil and thrive. Adding compost to garden beds also helps prevent disease and infestation by maintaining a healthy, dynamic balance of micro & macro organisms that keep one another's populations, within the soil biology ”food web”, in check. Compost helps soil retain moisture, which also saves you money on your water bill. You will also be saving money on yard waste disposal and the need for purchasing compost and extra yard waste bags from your local garden center. Compost improves soil stability and aeration that allows plant and tree roots to access much needed water and oxygen within the soil. By providing for more efficient drainage, plant roots are encouraged to establish deeper, where they are more resistant to drought, disease and damage from heavy traffic. You will also be helping by significantly reducing toxic run-off into ground water and waterways, as well as methane gas emissions from landfills.

Q: “Who compost?”

A: “YOU. You compost. As previously stated, it’s better for the environment, ”soil stewardship”, yadda-yadda... frankly, you could use the exercise... and some small sense of accomplishment to cling to in this otherwise meaningless, soul-crushing “hampster-wheel” of a life. Pour yourself a big glass of wine when on compost duty, if need be. Just do it. You’ll be glad you did.

Q: “What will I need for making compost?”

A: “You will need the following”:

  1. a big pile of yard debris.
  2. a compost bin (optional). I personally like using “re-purposed” discarded shipping pallets to build my compost bins. They are easy to come by, they are just the right dimensions for a compost bin, they are great for allowing just the right amount of airflow while helping retain moisture, they are easily lined with chicken wire or other higher gauge wire mesh to help retain materials, as well as keep out rats and other unwanted pests, etc. As for construction, just think a cube with the top and one side removed. Some kind of lightweight, easily removable & replaced material, like a tarp works great for the top. This helps protect the pile from excessive rain, snow, while helping retain moisture and more even temperatures that increase the efficiency the composting process.
  3. a pitchfork for turning the compost pile.
  4. gardening gloves, shoes, etc. (optional. just wash your hands.)
  5. a shovel. I like grain shovels. one scoop roughly fills one 5 Gal. bucket, and because they are wide and flat it makes it easier to clean up compost and I don’t tear up nearly as much tarps as I do with your stand flat and spade garden shovels.
  6. a wheelbarrow or buckets. I prefer spreading compost from buckets because it makes it easier to distribute around delicate plants and densely planted beds, when spreading mulch around in large garden beds. Also, 5 Gal. buckets worth of compost poured out in a checkerboard pattern, when you knock down the piles and level into the empty spaces , you get an even distribution of roughly 3” - 4” inch layer compost throughout the beds.
  7. a garden hose.

Q: “Where do I set up my compost bin?”

A: “ The ideal location would be 1.) a level area with good drainage 2.) away from houses, garden beds & at least a couple feet away from fences or other wood structures. 3.) somewhere protected from the effects of direct & excessive sun, wind & rain. 4.) away from pine trees and other conifers, whose needles high carbon content can slow the composting process. 5.) near a water source or within reach of a garden hose.

Q: ”When is the best time to compost?”

A: “There are materials to be gathered for composting all year round. Especially in late summer & autumn, as there is a significant amount of perennials and other plants to cut back, fallen leaves, spent vegetable plants, woody debris from pruning, etc. ready to be gathered. Timing wise, and if done correctly, a well tended compost pile will produce perfect mulch in time to cover vulnerable plant roots with, in time for winter. The composting process slows down in colder temperatures, but the compost available, come time for late winter - early spring tree & shrub pruning time, a few shovels full of said compost makes for a great ”compost starter” (as it is rich in active, essential decomposer micro-organisms, etc.), combined with the sudden burst of green, new growth from lawns & garden beds, you will have plenty of materials for some top-notch compost, in time for spring & early summer plantings. Adding a few shovels of compost to kick-start new compost piles is a great practice anytime & every time.

Q: “How do I build and maintain a good compost pile?

A: The most efficient way to produce high quality, healthy compost is by layering, in multiple portions, nitrogen sources and carbon sources in a location with good drainage, sufficient but not excessive airflow, sun exposure or moisture. The “chemical reaction” that ensues as a result, is responsible for breaking these materials down and converting it into nutrient rich soil, in a form that can be accessed and utilized by plants. In order to build a fast working, more efficient compost pile, you will need the following:

  • CARBON: woody material like cut up tree branches (smaller the pieces are broken up, the better), twigs, bark, etc., dry leaves, straw, corn stalks, etc. Shredded newspaper, paper bags and such technically can be used, and enough folks do, but due to the fact that such paper products are heavily processed and chemically treated, I just don’t recommend it.
  • NITROGEN: grass clippings, spent annuals, green leafy clippings and other such yard debris, cutback perennials, over-ripened fruit, veggie plants. Other food scraps can be used, and again, enough folks do, but if you don’t want to also attract rats, either build or purchase a separate enclosed composting bin for food scraps that they can’t get into or else just omit such items from you compost piles.
  • WATER: Maintaining proper moisture levels within your compost pile is an important step in the production of high quality compost. Regularly sprinkle your compost pile with water as part of your routine, whenever turning your pile. The ideal amount of moisture in the pile will feel more like a wrung out kitchen sponge. Too much water will diminish aeration, thus also contribute to the slowing of the decomposition process.
  • OXYGEN: Decomposition occurs with two different kinds of microbes; aerobic and anaerobic microbes. “Aerobic” decomposers require a properly & regularly aerated compost pile, in order to quickly and efficiently break down materials into healthy soil. Reduced aeration slows microorganism activity, thus the composting process. “Anaerobic” microbes decompose by means of fermentation, which produces chemicals, acids that can be toxic to plant life, as well as give off foul smell. For best results, stir/turn compost materials about once a week.

The ideal size of a compost pile, for the purpose of efficient aeration, moisture & heat retention is a 3’ x 3‘ x 3’ pile. Piles this size are also much easier to turn. Other ways of building a faster, more efficient compost pile is by 1.) breaking up your bark, branches & other woody debris into smaller pieces 2.) layering your pile with multiple, carbon and nitrogen source materials (like a lasagna). Not only does this ensure increased micro-organism populations & activity, but also makes for easier stirring and distribution. Technically speaking, the optimum ratio of carbon to nitrogen is 30:1, although 20:1 - 10:1 ratios will work too. Too high a carbon content will take longer to decompose, while too high a nitrogen content will turn into a slimy, sludgey, stinking mess (think a big pile of grass clipping rotting and fermenting away). Just work with what you have, the best you can.

Another reason I prefer building my compost bins with shipping pallets is that using a pallet for the floor of a bin allows for increased aiflow to the bottom of the pile. If you are just building a pile on the ground somewhere, you can accomplish the same thing by laying a mat base of longer, flat branches & twigs, to add your material on.

Q: “Apart from myself, who else is involved in making compost?”

A: I’m glad you asked! Soil biology itself is comprised of a highly complex network of interconnected bacteria, fungi, actinomycetes and other micro and macro-fauna that are directly responsible for the creation, sustainability and fertility of soil. Here is a bit about some (but not all) of the key players busy at work in your compost pile:

The decomposition process is begun with the introduction of three different bacteria that enter the compost pile, (in consecutive order of appearance) the Psychrophilic, Mesophilic and Thermophilic bacteria. They are the first to begin the breaking down of these materials in your compost pile. The “nitrogen” sources are utilized by the bacteria to build protein in their bodies, to grow and reproduce, while “carbon” sources provide them the energy to keep “eating” (decomposing the pile). In the process, their activity progressively raises the temperature of the compost pile up to 140F (the ideal temperature for killing off most disease in soil as well as killing off most weed seeds) and as high as 160F and above (although, too high a temperature can render your soil effectively sterile and lose it’s disease fighting properties).

Next are the Actinomycetes, that possess characteristics common to both bacteria and fungi. They are the grayish-white fuzz you see in fresh compost. They are also the source of the dark color and “earthy” smell of nutrient rich soil. They play an important role in the decomposing of more resistant organic materials, such as cellulose, starches, proteins, polysaccharides, chitin, etc. As they do, they are replenishing the soil carbon, nitrogen, ammonia and other essential plant nutrients. In the process, they are also responsible for producing antibiotics that help in fending off several different diseases affecting plant roots.

Also playing an important role in the breaking down of organic matter and the cycling of nutrients are a wide variety of fungi species, from thread-like colonies, single celled yeasts, mushrooms, etc. One such important fungi that you may have seen listed as a “feature special ingredient” in organic soil amendments/conditioners and other ”specialty soils” are the Mycorrhizal fungi. When you pull a plant up by the roots, the dense network fine white branch-like root structures binding large clumps of soil to the plant’s roots are actually the Mycorrhizal fungi. They form a symbiotic relationship with plants, which provide carbohydrates to the fungi, who in return expand the reach of plant roots to gather water and nutrients such as phosphorus, zinc, while also making plants more drought and disease resistant, and more resilient to soil salinity, contaminants, etc.

In addition, we have protozoa, nematodes and a whole range of other micro-invertebrate, microfauna and macro-fauna, earthworms, ants, beetles, etc. Each, individually and uniquely, play an important role in the production and maintenance of healthy, well structured, nutrient rich soil. In short, the life of your soil is the life in your soil!

Q: “How often & how much mulch or compost should I distribute around lawn and garden beds?”

A: Regular mulching is also important, if you are regularly cleaning up fallen leaves and other dead plant material, as previously covered, this is the primary source for feeding and stabilizing soil ecosystems in the first place. Without it, you will need to add it. Mulching, anytime you do, is an excellent investment in the health & success of your yard & garden, as well as, in numerous ways, the general health and value of your property, altogether. For best results:

  • in GARDEN BEDS: I recommend an even 3” - 4” layer at least twice a year (spring and fall, respectively, after and before final & 1st frost dates. These being around mid-March and mid-November.). Mulching in Summer, ahead of hotter, drier temperatures rolling in, is a great way to protect & feed vulnerable plants.
  • for LAWNS: I recommend raking 1/2” of fresh mulch into your lawn and over-seeding twice a year (6 weeks minimum before 1st frost and right after final frost dates. Organic fertilizers can be used in combination with added mulch to help replenish nutrients. But before jumping into the use of fertilizers, I recommend reviewing an earlier article, entitled “ORGANIC vs. CHEMICAL LAWN CARE: The “Lowdown” on Lowdown Chemical Fertilizers”. *(Spoiler Alert: I’m not at all a fan of chemical fertilizers. period.).

Well, there you have it! Hopefully, this will help you get better oriented in the general life and flow of the dynamic, highly complex, intricate ecosystem that is your garden. Good luck!! and Good stewardship!!

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