Organic gardening is the practice of using only organic matter in your garden. Organic matter is quite diverse, it is the living and dead particles found in organic soil.
- Living particles: – these are the organisms like earthworms, insects and micro organisms such as bacteria and fungi found in organic soil. All living particles are fundamental factors in creating fertile soil.
- Dead particles: – these are the decaying remains of old, once-living plants and animals and include bird droppings, grass cuttings, leaves, and even dead, decaying animal remains.
Soil color can be very deceiving. You will find that soil color does not always indicate the fertility; and the darkest of garden soil may be poor in nutrients. Experienced gardeners perform a soil test and make the appropriate soil amendments by adding organic soil conditioners into their garden soils to encourage healthy root growth and improve soil aeration. They also maintain the soil texture by adding organic fertilizer and organic matter. For us to become good gardeners, we need to follow this example.
How does one add dead and living organic matter? Organic soil amendments like organic compost, manure, leaf mould, peat moss, sawdust, bark, etc. is the answer. The micro-organisms that occur in organic soil will break down the organic matter and will thus produce Nitrogen, Phosphate and compounds of Potassium, Calcium and other elements that are all essential for healthy plant growth. However, these micro-organisms themselves require Nitrogen, air, water and warmth. Organic compost is part of the natural cycle of plant growth, where dead and decayed organic matter is returned to the soil, broken down by micro-organisms, and is thus recycled. By adding organic compost to your garden soil you are actually imitating nature. Compost soil is fertile soil. In rare cases organic matter may not supply sufficient plant nutrients and chemical fertilizers are thus required to supplement the nutrient value of the garden soil. The key factor is to make use of organic fertilizer as much as possible and only use chemical fertilizer where organic fertilizer is insufficient.
Compost or Humus?
According to Wikipedia the definition of humus in agriculture simply means mature compost, or natural compost extracted from a forest or other spontaneous source for use to amend garden soil. Compost is regarded as the gardener’s best friend and can be described as well-rotted organic matter that is absorbent, humus-rich and friable and will result in improved soil fertility, structure and water-holding capacity when applied to soil – in other words think of compost as an organic fertilizer. Incidentally compost is formed in nature all the time as plants and animals die and decompose. This natural compost is generally called humus. Dedicated, well-seasoned and good gardeners sometimes prefer making their own compost or humus while other will go and purchase commercial compost at garden centers, hardware stores, and the like to save on the time aspect of making one’s one compost. You can make your own humus soil by gathering organic materials such as fruit or vegetable scraps, grass clippings, old papers and raked, fallen leaves, into a heap in a secluded part of your yard. Our page on making organic compost will provide you with more information on this, and with a recipe for compost making. You will find that compost recipes are varied and can become complicated. However you will also find that it does not take a rocket scientist to make your own compost by making use of this compost recipe. After all, this site is dedicated to the novice gardener and will stick to the simple and uncomplicated in most cases.
Benefits of compost
- Improved water retention –humus soil and organic compost will hold water well, and will also absorb water well due to its fibrous texture. This is especially beneficial for garden soil that is sandy in nature and in areas where water is a scare commodity. As mentioned in the following benefit, humus soil will also combat soil erosion. For a greener world we need to all strive towards organic gardening and being soil conservationists.
- Improved soil texture – soil compaction is prevented due to the soft, fibrous nature of organic compost. The fibrous nature of humus soil keeps the smaller soil particles apart and prevents compaction. Organic compost can also help to bind larger soil particles and prevent soil erosion and water loss, while facilitating rapid root development.
- Increased nutrient value – organic compost contains high percentages of macro- and micro-nutrients, akin to a “natural” organic fertilizer.
- Improved nutrient holding capacity – due to the nature of organic compost, the structure of the compost will allow it to hold on to nutrients which could easily be leached away in soil that is not composted or sandy soil and will thus also help in addressing drainage problems. Plenty compost thus equates increased soil fertility.
- Improved plant health – there are many beneficial micro-organisms, fungi and bacteria in organic compost that will help to break down organic matter. This then results in adding new life to soil and thus improving plant health – really in keeping with the soil conservation sentiment.
If your budget does not allow you to indulge in spending copious amounts of money on purchasing organic fertilizer, then green manure is the answer. It is essentially a supplementary means of adding organic matter to the soil. Green manure provides a great inexpensive way to get organic matter into the soil where it is required. The types of soil that stand to gain most by green manure is the light sandy soils. Green manure is achieved by growing a crop on the site where organic matter is needed and worked directly into the garden soil without having to go via the whole process of decomposing first. The green-manure crop supplies organic matter as well as additional nitrogen. Crops like legumes are especially suited for green manure purposes. Legumes can be cut down and left as an organic mulch on the ground as well. In this way the green manure crops also perform a protective action against erosion and leaching.
The best legumes to use as green manure are the lupins, beans, cowpeas, alfalfa, clover, cereals grains like oats and Italian rye grass. Green manure plants are usually grown for a season and just after the first flowers before seeds are formed, these plants are worked into the garden soil. However for the proper rotting of the green manure, it is essential that the green manure crop should be succulent and there should be adequate moisture in the soil. When incorporating a green manure crop into your garden soil when the crop is at the flowering stage, you will allow for the quick liberation of nitrogen in the available form. This is mainly due to the fact that all plants at the flowering stage contain the greatest bulk of succulent organic matter with a low carbon to nitrogen ratio.
Organic mulch is quite a loose term that describes coarse organic compost or organic matter that is spread over the surface of the soil. Organic mulch can consist of materials such as compost, peat moss, leaves, grass clippings, bark chips, nutshells, decomposed animal manure, pine needles, wood shavings, sawdust and even straw. Organic mulching holds a multitude of benefits.
Benefits of mulching
- Organic mulch adds organic matter to depleted garden soil.
- Organic mulching increases microbial activity.
- Organic mulching serves as protection against harsh sunlight that dries out the soil, and against soil erosion.
- Organic mulching reduces the need for irrigation as it preserves soil moisture.
- Organic mulch acts as a weed deterrent because it inhibits the growth of unwanted plants.
- Organic mulch protects plants from cold damage as it acts like a blanket.
- Organic mulch is visually appealing since it makes the garden look neat and cared for.
- Organic mulch is also beneficial in that it increases crop production and helps to cultivate chemical free food with higher nutritional value.
You should however take care that the materials used for mulching is dry and old. As far as possible avoid making use of thick layers of green materials such as leaves as it will draw nitrogen away from the plants that are being mulched. Your plants need nitrogen as it is required for green growth. Only incorporate well-rotted, old mulch into the garden soil.