If I Could Do Only One Task In My Garden…

There are dozens of strategies you can implement to have a more successful garden.

And what your garden needs may be very different from what my garden needs.

But there is one ingredient that, when used properly, is often going to have a tremendous impact on most gardens around the world.

The reason I’m talking about this today is because we’re in the middle of a mini-series about the 80-20 rule.

The 80-20 rule says that with many tasks in life, you can get 80% of the results with just 20% of the effort, IF you know which effort gives the biggest impact.

I’m not sure how far we can apply this rule to our gardening efforts, but we can certainly use the idea of performing the most important tasks first in order to get the best results.

I talked last time about how three of the most important ingredients a garden needs are air, water and food.

Today I’m talking about the one ingredient that helps with all of those.

That ingredient is, as you may have guessed, organic matter, which means the remains of things that were once living – animals, plants and microorganisms – in various stages of decay.

Now if you’ve been gardening organically for a while, you probably already know about the power of organic matter.

But have you been faithfully using it each year? And using multiple sources? Sometimes we forget to address the basics in our gardens.

There are three main ways in which I use organic matter, with a fourth on the horizon.

The first is as a mulch. A good, thick mulch will supply all of our most important ingredients – air, water and food – in addition to smothering most weeds, which will save you a whack of time in the garden (hence continuing our 80-20 theme).

The air part happens rather slowly, but as microorganisms, insects, earthworms and other small animals break down the mulch and incorporate it into the soil, that creates more spaces in the soil for air. I’ve seen a thick mulch laid on a compacted dirt/gravel laneway that went quite far towards turning that laneway into plantable soil in just one year.

The water part happens right away. The mulch holds onto water and stops it from evaporating from the soil surface, so mulch cuts down on water needs by a huge amount.

The food part happens along with the air part. As the mulch is broken down, it feeds beneficial microbes, and its nutrients are returned to the soil and plants.

Of course for all of this to happen, you need to use an appropriate mulch – not stones, which don’t break down, nor bark mulch, which resists breakdown. Wood chips can be okay and are certainly long-lasting, but they aren’t as helpful as the ultimate mulch, which is leaves.

Grass clippings and pulled weeds are great, too, although you have to be careful with grass because it can create an anaerobic mess if you pile on too much at once, so be sure to spread it out. In fact, one of the big benefits of having a lawn is that your grass clippings can be an excellent part of your mulch, and an even better part of the second step…

The second way to use organic matter is compost. I wonder sometimes if my readers will get tired of how often I mention compost, but I’ll continue to mention it anyway because it’s just that important.

I will say, though, that it’s often overused in the world of organic gardening. Too much compost can lead to soil nutrient imbalances, especially excess potassium.

But a small amount of good compost worked into the top few inches of soil or even placed on top will do a lot of good – perhaps as much as a couple of inches when you’re building a new bed, but often just 1/4 inch or even much less.

Worked in, it will create more air spaces right away, and increase the water-holding capacity of the soil right away. It will supply more food right away, too. By food, I mean nutrients AND the beneficial microbes who feed those nutrients to plants.

So mulch and compost are two of my main sources of organic matter.

In a couple of days, I’ll share the other two sources, both of which have their own special benefits.