||By Lyn Chimera|
Soil is as different from dirt as good, whole grain bread is as different from Wonder Bread.
Good soil can be the difference between success and failure in everything from a healthy lawn to trees and shrubs and everything in between. So what makes soil different from dirt? Soil is full of life and nutrition for plants while dirt is basically lifeless.
The main difference is organic matter. Organic matter is basically decomposing plant material and all the microbial life it supports. The importance of decomposing plant material hit me yesterday when I was walking at Emery Park on a macadam road that is no longer used. Over years of disuse, vegetation has started growing in from the edges until now, when there is just five or six feet of road in the middle left uncovered. The same thing happens at the edges of sidewalks and driveways if the lawn isn’t edged regularly.
How does this happen? As plants die in the fall, the decomposing material eventually becomes soil, which supports seeds and plant growth. Think compost piles. Plants and leaves decompose and become compost, which is an extremely microbe-rich type of soil. Eventually, whole areas can be covered with vegetation to the extent that you can’t tell a road or walkway ever existed. Think archeological digs.
Nature makes its own soil without any help from us. Think of the woods and meadows. Those areas have rich soil simply from the fact that vegetation is left to decompose on sight and continually renews the soil. We can achieve the same effect in our yards and gardens. It’s remarkably easy!
The mulches and fertilizers you choose can make a huge difference. Using stone mulch or weed barrier cloth as mulch doesn’t add anything to the nutrients in the soil. Wood mulch is similar in lack of nutrients. When you use wood mulch, it’s recommended it be removed each spring and new wood mulch added. This doesn’t allow for any decomposition and is a lot of unnecessary work.
For these reasons, the best mulches are ones that are natural and will decompose and contribute to the life in the soil. I use compost and ground leaves (known as leaf mold). At first, I actually mulched with compost. Each spring, I purchased three yards of good compost containing composted manure (this can be bought from local nurseries and delivered by the yard or bought in large bags depending on how much you need). In mid-summer when the compost had decomposed and become part of the soil, I mulched with shredded leaves. This was a wonderful mid-season mulch as they were light and airy so the rain got through but also protected the soil against evaporation. Chopped leaves are also an excellent weed barrier since the weeds can’t seed easily.
However, after many years of mulching with compost, my soil was extremely rich and loose. The soil had plenty of nutrients so now I mulch spring and late summer with only mulched leaves. I do continue to add one-third compost to every planting hole when I add or move a plant. That helps jump start the microbial activity.
The best part of using chopped leaves is they are free and way easier to spread than normal heavy mulches. Leaves must be chopped or mulched as with a mulching lawn mower. This is because whole leaves decompose slowly and can form a mat. I don’t have enough leaves of my own so in the fall when people put their leaves out to the street, I go around with a rake and leaf bags and gather them. Remember, only gather leaves already mulched unless you have a mulcher and can chop your own. Not only is this the best mulch for your gardens, you’re also helping reduce green waste.
Remember, SOIL IS THE KEY to healthy plants.
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