Living Soils: The Key to Abundant Plant Growth
By Anthea Hudson
Modern farming methods, toxic agricultural chemicals, pollution and urbanisation have depleted and effectively killed much of the life in our soils. It's time to change that and get healthier, highly productive gardens without the need for artificial nasty chemicals.
In time to come, as we deplete the petrochemicals from which these are made, many of the chemical fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides will no longer be available... but who wants to use those on the plants that we love and food that we eat anyway? These chemicals are not only dangerous to the insects and weeds they kill, but to the other beneficial living organisms and creatures that churn over the organic matter, and do all kinds of other beneficial things, that makes healthy soil and naturally help get rid of pests. We are destroying the systems which work in concert to create thriving naturally controlled eco-systems.
They are also dangerous to many higher order life-forms- including humans! So why poison our soils- and ourselves- any further?
With a little knowledge, and time, we can recreate these supportive systems and bring our soils back to life. Then we will have a garden which grows abundantly and resiliently, and has little problem with pests.
For a fascinating look at the vital importance of good soil, take a look at this amazing video. Well worth putting time into watching.
Dirt! The Movie.
For more information about this, visit http://www.dirtthemovie.org/
OUT WITH THE BAD, IN WITH THE GOOD!
If your topsoil is heavily polluted, or contains a lot of builders rubble or other non useful materials, or is just of very poor quality, it may be necessary to remove much of this soil and replace it with a good quality purchased topsoil. Be sure to research just what it is you are buying though, as you may end up with a soil not much better than your own. If you are not sure of the quality of your soil, you can test for various things, or there are companies who can test for you.
In a lot of cases though, you won't have to go to the trouble of replacing soil, just improving it. Even with newly purchased soil, it will probably need improving in certain ways. There's lots you can do that need not cost you a lot of money, and are well worth the effort.
Understanding your soil type and how it can be improved is an important first step for any gardener.
This interesting video from 'Gardening Australia' has a useful discussion on this topic.
Soil Composition from ABC's Gardening Australia
Compost is wonderful for the garden and can be created in a good old fashioned compost heap, or in a compost bin of which there are various kinds and levels of fanciness. A compost heap allows for easy frequent turning of the organic material, which is sometimes harder to achieve in a compost bin, but some people prefer the out of site aspect of a bin. A bin also makes it more difficult for unwanted "visitors" to dine from your scraps and scatter them about. Also, the dark colour of many bins increase the heat, which can be handy especially in colder areas. One of the best kind of compost bins, in my experience, is the type which is hung on a stand and can be rotated with a handle. This provides an easy way of turning the material, without having to take it out of the bin. These are more expensive than the on-ground stationary bins, but well worth it if you can afford it.
Most household scraps can be composted, including things like tea bags, coffee grounds and egg shells, however don't add meat, bones or dairy products. Garden prunings and lawn clippings, along with fallen leaves, hay/straw, untreated wood chips and sawdust, and animal manure (don't use manure from an animal who has recently been wormed, or you may kill any worms who venture into your compost) are also excellent compost materials.
The secret to a good compost is getting your ratio of moist to drier ingredients right, and getting it to the right temperature- 55 to 65 Celsius- for the process to work best. Don't be too disillusioned if your first batch of compost has some teething problems, as with a bit of trial and error you will soon get the hang of it.
For a more in depth look at compost, see our article 'Creating Compost: Returning Life to the Soil'.
The video below is worth a look to help you get it right the first time.
The Perfect Compost Recipe - How to Get Your Compost Heap Cooking!
Bokashi bins, or buckets, are like a mini composting system for your kitchen, and can be very handy for people who don't have the room, or the desire, for a normal compost bin/pile. The actual full breakdown doesn't happen in the bin, but because of the process, involving special microbes, once buried in the garden or compost heap the process continues at a highly accelerated speed. A great advantage to the Bokashi system is that ANY food waste can be put in them, including meats and other substances that you can't safely put in a normal compost heap, or things that you can't use in a worm farm. They have a tap at the base where moisture, which is produced as part of the process, can be drained off. This is a rich fertiliser in itself and can be used directly on plants.
Bokashi Basics - How to set up a bokashi bucket for small scale kitchen waste
For more information about getting into Bokashi, check out our article 'Bokashi:Advice from the Experts at Jaki Bokashi'.
WORMS- MASTER GARDENERS!
Worms are amazing creatures without which much conversion from organic matter to soil would be left undone. Worms eat organic matter and expel it in nutrient dense castings (worm poo.) They also improve the structure, aeration and drainage of your soil by their activity.
It is far better to attract more earthworms to your garden, rather than buy and transplant worms, because worms bred in other places may not thrive in your location. And if there are no worms, it is possible that your soil is too toxic or has unsuitable conditions for worms to survive, so any you transplanted, before improving the conditions, would probably die anyway. So, use some simple techniques, and let them move in of their own accord.
Creating a suitable earthworm environment:
Your soil pH should be above 4.5 (you can test for this) as worms do not like acid soils. If your soil is too acid, add garden lime (a natural mineral), which not only helps make soil more alkaline, but adds a usable form of calcium, which the worms also need.
Plenty of organic material, such as compost, is also needed to attract worms, and to keep them thriving. This also helps protect the soil from drying out too much, and from temperature extremes.
Your soil should be kept moist, but have good drainage... your worms don't want to go swimming!
Last but not least... DO NOT USE TOXIC CHEMICAL PRODUCTS ON YOUR GARDEN!
(Ok, you've probably got that point by now :) )
If you do decide to buy worms, make sure you get actual earthworms, not worm farm worm varieties, as these do not survive well in most garden situations.
Worm farms however are another excellent way of turning organic matter into castings and fertiliser. They do require a little more work and know-how than earthworms, but are useful for turning your kitchen food waste into some really great garden food! The castings can be sprinkled on your garden, and the drain off water can be watered down and used as a spray on fertiliser directly onto the leaves. For information on building your own worm farm check out our article 'Home Made Worm Farms: How to Build Your Own Worm Farm'.
How to start a worm farm in 4 steps: vermiculture made easy
Manures are a rich source of nutrients for your soil. Try to source manure from organic farms, so as to avoid as much as possible any remnant antibiotics, hormones, chemicals present in their feed etc.
Many manures are best broken down in the compost system, for various reasons:
- They can be too strong to use directly around plants. If you are lucky enough to own pet rabbits, their manure is very mild and great to use as is on your garden.
- Diseases and foreign chemicals present in the manure are mostly eliminated in the composting process, as long as high enough temperatures are reached.
- Compounds released by raw manure can give certain vegetables an off flavour and smell.
- Weed seeds may be present in the manure and grow into weeds in your garden. The heat produced in a compost heap will greatly reduce the number of viable seeds in the manure.
- It is probably safer to use only composted manures on plants which you intend to eat. Also, never use cat, dog or pig manure- fresh or composted- on edible plants, because of parasites that can be passed to humans.
This short video has a few tips on manure.
Using Animal Manure in Your Garden
SOIL MICROBE PRODUCTS
If you want to give your soil microbe population a boost, you can purchase them in either a powder or liquid form. However, once you have provided a suitably tempting environment for them, colonies will migrate to your garden, in time. It is very important to keep up a supply of organic material to your garden for these microbes to survive.
Following the above tips should get you well on the way to having a marvellous living soil, capable of providing you with an abundant harvest for your table, or a beautiful garden to lift your spirit.
Want to get things growing? Check out some of our other articles!