The key to healthy soil is organic matter. Every gardening guide says so, so it must be true. And it is. But all organic matter is not equal. Composting tends to even the playing field, eventually. Larger pieces and woodier material will break down along with the tender leaves and stems resulting in compost that is fine, crumbly, and sweet-smelling.
There are shortcuts. Some refuse can go directly into the garden to cycle back into essential nutrients right in place, bypassing the layering and turning of the compost bin.
Fresh, green clippings like grass and other tender leaves and stems, as well as kitchen scraps—from carrot and apple peels to tough green bean strings and pea pods—can be thinly layered on the surface of the garden or added sparingly to soil when preparing for planting. Seaweeds fit in this category, as well, but remember to rinse oceanic plants thoroughly to remove excess salt. Beware: Too thick a layer of these fresh greens may result in an impenetrable mat that doesn’t break down and even can impede water percolation.
Dry leaves and other dry, but fairly thin, plant stems, such as straw and pine needles, take a little longer and can be used as mulch and layered on the soil up to 4 inches deep. Don’t try to use them directly into a planting hole. Large and very woody bits (think those chips from the tree service) should only be used as a top dressing. They take a really long time to break down, even in a nice hot composting system. Don’t worry; there are microbes and fungi that will eventually convert them into dark, crumbly, beautiful humus. Nearly magical, this substance is the key to healthy soil. In fact, the color of any organic material will be a key to its use in the garden. All green waste will eventually take on this dark hue, and the darker the material, the better it is to incorporate when planting.
There is yet another class of organics to consider: manures. Most manures should not be used immediately after their production by the animals in question. Garden gurus speak of “hot” manure, meaning that it is of recent origin and contains a high concentration of ammonia. It takes time and some helpful bacteria to make this compound into a more easily assimilable source of nitrogen for plants. If it stinks, it’s too strong for delicate roots. Horse manure may be the most readily available, from area riding stables, and is usually mixed with some type of bedding material (straw or fine wood chips). It still needs time, either in the compost pile with all the other garden clippings or in a pile of its own to break down a bit.
Gardeners are increasingly growing chickens, rabbits, goats, or other beasts, and all of their droppings are also valuable sources of nitrogen and organic components. The mammals are herbivores and produce dung that has a fair amount of plant fiber since they eat only grasses and grains. Avian droppings are more concentrated (they also eat insects, snails, and almost anything small enough to pass their craw), so it needs to be used sparingly when fresh or composted well. Keeping a goat or a few chickens is an excellent way to process garden and kitchen clippings, however. Toss the raw ingredients into the coop or corral, and they will be crunched, digested, excreted, and mixed together with no extra effort; ready-made soil amendments.
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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., S.B., CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org