Soil is the foundation of gardening, so it should never be an afterthought. Determine the kind of soil in the garden first. Then learn ways to improve the soil. Almost all soil should be given a healthy addition of soil amendments. Organic materials are the best way to add amendments and dramatically increase the nutrients in the soil.
Natural organic soil amendments not only add nutrients to help the growth of plants, but they also improve the soil structure. They help water to drain properly and help air flow to the roots. Both of these can stimulate the root development and therefore promote plant growth.
There are several types of soil amendments on the market. It can be a daunting task to decide what to use. Retail garden centers’ have several varieties of organic soil amendments already bagged and ready to purchase. Some of these amendments are made from several ingredients mixed together, while others contain a single material. These bags of organic amendments also vary in the added nutrients.
Know your own soil type first:
The first step to deciding which organic amendment to purchase is knowing what will be grown in that soil and your soil type. The three basic types of soil are sandy, clay and loam. Sandy soil is so lose that water drains through it very quickly and takes any nutrients with it. Clay soil compacts and makes drainage difficult. It stays wet and sticky for days but forms a hard crust on the top when it’s dry. It is a very difficult soil and is what I have in my region. The last soil type is what every gardener would love to have. This third type is called loam. It is just the right amount of sand, silt and clay. Loam is just about perfect, but it can sometimes use organic amendments.
There are approximately six common types of organic amendments available to improve soil. It is always a good idea to check the label if the amendments are bagged. If they are not, then be certain the company is reputable and knowledgeable and can show an ingredient list. There may be more than one of the common organic amendments included in one bag or mix.
Compost probably is the celebrity of organic amendments for the soil. It has even been given the nickname of “nature’s gold” among expert gardeners. It is full of nutrients and is as organic as possible. Compost is rich and can be beneficial to every soil type. It breaks apart the compacted particles in clay soil which improve the drainage. In sandier soils, it actually helps to retain the moisture and releases nutrients.
The types of compost can vary also. There is not any particular type of compost. The word is just derived from organic substances in the process of decomposing. Many gardeners make their own compost at home using leaves, grass clippings and meatless kitchen scraps. The ingredients in bagged compost can vary, but they will all enrich the soil with organic amendments.
Sometimes it consists of just one decomposed material, such as mushrooms. Most of the time, compost has a mixture of materials. The ingredient label may not be exactly specific, but the mixture is usually a combination of yard or forest materials, manure or even sewer sludge. How long the organic compost will last in the garden will depend on how long it has been processing. The bagged compost has probably been aged for quite awhile. Most compost will need to be refreshed at least one time per year.
2: Leaf mold
Leaf mold is very similar to compost but with fewer ingredients. It is a rapidly decomposing material that will greatly benefit acid- loving plants such as camellias, azaleas and rhododendrons. Leaf mold is the finely ground material at the bottom of an old leaf pile or on the bottom of a forest floor. Many gardeners use leaf mold alone to improve soil texture but the leaves will need to be finely shredded. If the leaves are not shredded sufficiently, they will mat together when wet. Extra leaves can always be added to the compost pile. Either way, leaf mold is a nutrient-rich way to add organic amendments to the soil.
When used cautiously, manure can be a wonderful way to get organic soil amendments. Manure usually always comes from cows, horses and chickens. It must be sufficiently aged before used. Fresh manure will injure plants, attract insects and make your garden smell like a barnyard. It is high in nutrients, especially nitrogen. It is very inexpensive and abundant. It is also available to purchase in bags.
If you do intend to use fresh manure, just be sure to keep it turned with a pitchfork periodically. The strong smell of ammonia needs to be gone before using it as a soil amendment. This process may take several weeks. The manure will need to be worked into the soil very well. It cannot just be put around the plants the way compost is. Manure will always have some smell (even bagged) and if it is not sufficiently worked into the soil, the aroma will be renewed with each watering.
This is actually used in various bagged organic soil amendments. It is not the most pleasant amendment because of the source. It is the by-product of wastewater treatment plants. The by-product is composted at very high heat for several days to kill anything harmful. Sometimes it is available at local sanitation facilities where they make it and offer it for free.
5: Partially composted materials
There are materials available that have a course texture and will take longer to decompose. They can consist of ground bark, wood fibers, sawdust and rice hulls. These have such a course texture that they work well to loosen compacted clay soils. The important thing to remember when using wood products is they deplete the soil of nitrogen as they decompose. If you use fresh sawdust or wood shavings in the soil, a nitrogen fertilizer must be used. Usually bags of composted bark and wood already have nitrogen added.
6: Peat moss
Peat moss is usually found in bogs in Minnesota and Canada. It is what remains of the decomposed organic material from those bogs. Peat moss is a great organic soil amendment. It helps sandy soils retain water, but it breaks up clay soil so air and water can get through. It is often one of the main ingredients in the lightweight bagged potting soils. Peat moss is also available bagged as the only ingredient. It is very dry and compressed. It needs to be moist before using it. The easiest way I’ve found to wet it is to leave it in the bag and slowly add water with a hose. It will change in appearance and fluff as it begins getting wet.