As buds swell, early flowers unfurl, bird song returns, and the earth gently warms, our fingers tingle in anticipation of the upcoming season and what it will bring. How much damage did “old man winter” inflict? Did that small tree planted last fall survive? Did the rhododendrons suffer winter burn? Does the yard look healthy? It’s time to march outdoors and carry out an inspection.
While we can readily see what is happening above ground and strive for an outdoor space that is aesthetically pleasing, it is just as important to take care of what goes on beneath the ground. That means improving your soil. Soil is a complex mix of organic and inorganic ingredients. The well-rotted organic matter is called humus and the inorganic bits are mineral and rock; add to that air and water. There is also a whole host of essential organisms that we can see like worms and nematodes, plus microscopic organisms like bacteria and protozoa living in this subterranean world. In addition to providing plants with a secure “footing,” the soil provides food and water.
Many of you have asked how to restore soil organically. Taking an organic approach will create a healthier environment and improve the habitat for all life, both wild and domesticated. Organic gardeners use naturally derived fertilizers and pesticides (from animal, mineral, or plant sources) rather than synthetic ones. Organic gardening is more than just the application of natural products; it is an approach to gardening using earth-friendly practices which replenish and sustain the earth.
A first easy step toward becoming an organic gardener is to start a compost pile. All of the raw materials you need are right at your fingertips. Choose a large container (the biggest one you can to suit the size of your yard), or just start a free-standing pile. Containers accelerate the breakdown of matter by insulating the pile and retaining heat. Non-containerized piles will decompose much more slowly. Aim to have a good mix, alternating layers of “green” matter (kitchen vegetable waste, tea bags, and garden clippings, to name a few) with “brown” matter like dry leaves, but avoid diseased plants, fecal waste from pets, invasive weeds, and cooked food. Air is essential to the composting process so turn the pile from time to time; more frequent turnings shorten the composting period. If dry weather persists, moisten the pile. After about six months, a crumbly brown substance will emerge, and you can use the compost to top dress the lawn or dig into beds and borders.
While you’re waiting for your “black gold” to develop, apply a proprietary organic fertilizer. Read the labels carefully as there are synthesized fertilizers claiming to be “organic based” when, in fact, they are chemical compositions. Be patient as it takes a few years to rehabilitate poor soil, but you will eventually be rewarded when you make composting part of your regular gardening regimen.