Organic Soil Management For Organic Gardeners

Organic soil management is a science and an art.

Conventional soil science teaches that soil is a relatively inert medium, an anchor for plants made of sand, silt and clay and a handful of nutrients for plant growth. If soil has enough nutrients, gardener’s will be okay.

Of course, organic soil management is so much more than that. Yet traditionally, not much has been mentioned about organic matter and next to nothing on the soil food web.

In many soil textbooks, you would likely find multiple chapters on fertilizing with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) and next to nothing on organic matter and botany. Fertilization is seen as the number one soil management strategy in many textbooks.

But this is organic gardening, and I’d like to present the story of healthy soil as a vibrant, living community. Of course, even organic soil is composed of sand, silt, clay and minerals, so I’ll talk about that, too.

And I’ll talk about soil testing, which isn’t particularly complicated but there are some things you need to know to do it right. I’ll get into organic soil amendments

Here are my articles on organic soil management…

2 Less-Known Methods To Improve Soil Fertility

In part 1, I talked about how organic matter is the most important ingredient for many gardens, and how mulch and compost are two of my favorite ways of using it.

But there are two other ways of using organic matter. The first is in some ways the most powerful of all, and the second may play an important role in reversing climate change. Let’s get into them… Read More

Organic Composting 101 – Making Compost Better

Welcome to organic composting 101.

This isn’t just a way of recycling organic waste – organic compost is actually one of the most valuable things we grow in the garden.

What is organic compost?

It just means we’re making compost from organic materials, without any added chemicals or genetically-modified ingredients or manure from animals that have received drugs, etc. Read More

Soil Sample Testing – How To Take A Soil Sample

If you’re not getting the results you’d hoped for from all areas of your organic garden, it may be time to do some soil sample testing.

I’ve talked about simple home soil tests before – there really is a lot you can see with your eyes or smell with your nose or feel with your fingers.

But sometimes the only way to get the real goods on your soil’s nutrient profile is to do some soil sample testing and send it to the experts. Read More

How To Prepare Soil For A Garden – 2 Different Ways

There are a couple of different methods of preparing soil for a garden bed, both of which have their uses.

Once you’ve dug a hole, played around with your soil a bit, and learned about your soil texture, it’s now time to start making your garden.

The first thing I want to briefly mention about how to prepare soil for a garden is what to do if you have a very extreme soil texture, i.e. very sandy or clayey. Read More

Home Soil Testing – No Need For A Soil Test Kit

Today I have a very simple home soil testing process for you.

You may be more interested in learning about topics such as:

  • How to get rid of insect and disease pests, and
  • How to grow the best-tasting tomatoes ever, and
  • Which fertilizers to apply to improve your soil

And I’m looking forward to teaching you these topics. Read More

What Is Soil Made Of And How Does Soil Form?

If you’ve ever wondered what is soil made of – GOOD!

You absolutely need to wonder about this kind of thing if you’re going to grow optimally healthy food.

Check out this video or read on below and you’ll see that many of our most important organic gardening tasks stem from this vital question.

And for more information on how to improve the nutrition and biological diversity of your soil, check out my organic fertilizing guide. Read More

Amazon Jungle Lesson 2 Of 3 – Organic Matter In Soil

Click for video transcription

Phil: In the last video, I was talking about soil mineralization. And in this video, what I want to get in to is, something else that’s very important for soil health and that is organic matter. An organic matter sometimes can refer to something that is living like roots are always growing and living in leaves and plants. But mostly in this context, what I mean is, something that used to be living.

And so that is leaves that are fall into the ground, that is snakes and beetles that are dead and lying on the ground and other animals, it’s microorganisms, it is… all of these fresh things that have recently died and are lying on the ground. Then it’s also the coarse mulch layer if you can kind of see here that is on the ground, which is when these things are starting to be broken down and they’re becoming more like a mulch they’re being broken down by microorganisms.

And then eventually, when we get into the soil, we get in to the humus layer, which is when these things have been broken down and broken down by all these different kinds of microorganisms and it really resist being broken down anymore, it gets into the soil and is called humus. So that’s what we’re going to be talking about today as these forms of organic matter.

The forest excels at recycling organic matter. The leaves from both deciduous and coniferous trees, which is the needles are falling down, whether it would be all in a fall for deciduous or often throughout the year for something it’s coniferous, they’re falling to the ground and they’re being recycled. There are plants and the cannabis underneath, if you get a shot of that, plants that just grow up every year and die back and so that’s a lot of organic matter.

And then underground too, you have the roots that are … as you guys probably know just as big as the upper part of a tree, the roots spread all underground and… hey mosquito, don’t go in my ear. All underground and they actually grow and die back a lot. At microscopic kind of level, they’re always growing and dying and contributing organic matter.

So forest really excels that recycling all these organic matter in to the soil. I should mention, although we don’t have any prairies around us right now, that they create even more organic matter, you might not think so, but because the grasses, the grasses are very dense, they grow up and die every year. They have very dense root systems that grow and die a lot throughout the year.

They create a lot of organic matter and it stays down in the soil, whereas in a forest, a lot of that carbon ends up in the trunk of these trees. But either way, within any kind of natural ecosystem, organic matter is being recycled very efficiently and it’s doing a lot of good work in the soil. And that’s just the plants, so of course there are microorganisms, there are animals, earthworms, insects, all of these are growing and dying and it being recycled back in to the soil too. And but I want to talk about now is the few of the main things that organic matter does for us in the soil, in the forest and in our gardens.

First might be, fertility. Organic matter, especially when it’s gets broken down into more humus in the soil is exceptionally good at holding on to nutrients. So it’s stops nutrients from draining down out beneath where the roots can get them. It holds on to them and it makes them much easier for microorganisms and plants to use it. It chelates with them, makes the much more available to all the other organisms.

And further organic matter is usually composed a lot of nutrition itself. So of course, animals when they die, leaves when they fall, they have some nutrients in them, many different minerals, but especially carbon, which we may not think of as a nutrient, but it’s really one of the most common nutrients that plants need, they made up of largely of carbon. So that’s a very important nutrient for plants to take up, which they partially get from the air as carbon-dioxide, but if there is lots of organic matter in the soil, they’ll be happy to take it from there instead.

Number two is, water and air. Organic matter in the soil especially creates the different spore spaces that allow the soil to hold on to a lot of water, but also bigger spore spaces that allow to hold on to a lot of air. All our roots and our microorganisms need air, so we need that and of course they need water.

And so humus in the soil is good at that, plus the coarse organic leaf layer on the top of the soil is really good at holding on to moisture and air as well. Then there is soil structure, which is partly what I just talked about with the air spaces and the water spaces. But also just the organic matter in the soil is decreases compaction, really helps the soil bounce back from compaction, decreases erosion, it really helps the soil be held together, instead of blowing away.

Then there is providing for soil life and really it’s all the things I’ve just talked about, but organic matter is habitat from microorganisms and earthworms and insects, it’s food, it’s water, it’s air, I mean, it just provides everything that all of the soil food web needs to establish itself and be healthy. And it probably provides other things we don’t know about on an energetic level, helping energy move through the soil. I mean, just really, yeah, creating a community or a soil life can thrive. We found the only sunny spot in this rain course here.

And now what I want to do is, start talking about how we can mimic nature, this rain forest to bring in organic matter into our gardens. And immediately, some of the things we do are fairly un-natural, but they do help us speed up the process of getting organic matter in to our soil and on to our soil. So the first would be composed, composting is not really a natural process, we’re kind of forcing very fast decomposition by bringing organic materials into a certain sized pile or certain amount of water and air and things like that and certain combinations of materials in order to hasten the decomposition of that into organic matter and being on it’s way into humus.

And we might use manure also in our garden, although it’s really best composed first as well. So we bring that composed in to our garden and pretty quickly we have some fairly well broken down organic matter. The next thing is, bringing in a mulch, which is so important for our garden. And the way we do it is way nature does it, which is leaves. Leaves are by far the best mulch. I know that most people aren’t using leaves, but they really are natural their nutrients and they just provide many benefits.

A little bit grass clippings can work too, you don’t want too thick of a layer grass clippings, because it can get anaerobic and promote the wrong kind of microorganisms and they can smell and all that. But a little bit grass clippings is fine and when we don’t have leaves or grass clippings in the short-term, we can use straw, which works really well, doesn’t look quite as natural, but it does fine.

But really, what we hope is that we can eventually get some leaves in to our garden. One thing that you really don’t want to use too much off is bark mulch and wood chips. If you look at the fourth floor here, you don’t see two inches of wood chips or bark mulch that just not … that’s not how it happens. When you see here, mostly leaves, you see some sticks that fall. Hardly any bark, because the trees don’t shed bark all that much.

You see, probably some seeds and some fresh material, but it’s mostly leaves that of course on top, when you get underneath and then they are more broken down. So you can use a little bit of that stuff. Bark mulch tends to, it can cause a nitrogen deficiency in your soil. It’s so high in carbon that I won’t explain that all here, but it can just cause nitrogen to be used up very quickly in your soil.

The same with wood chips and the thing about bark, especially is that how those toxins in it, that’s the plants, first line of defense against insects and other plant feeding organisms. And so there is toxins in bark, especially in coniferous bark that we often use in the garden like fur and seeder, pretty toxic stuff. Now you can use a little bit in an ornamental garden or for example, if you have a seeder edge, sure you could use a little bit of seeder mulch underneath, but you don’t need two inches of it.

If you have a free source of woody material, again in a deciduous like an ornamental garden, that’s a woody garden like shrubs and trees, a little bit can be okay, you might need to supplement some nitrogen, some organic nitrogen, so that you don’t cause soil problems. But really if you had a free source, I’d rather see you composed it for a few years and then bring it in to your garden.

So composts and mulches are great way to quickly bring in organic matters, sometimes we bring it in from offside if we have to, but in the long run, what we really want to do is, mimic nature even more by using for example plants.

If we can plant things that grow quickly and make a lot of leaves that falls and for most of us in autumn, they fall and that’s the great way to create mulch and then naturally it’s going to become more humus overtime. So planting things always making sure we have ground cover is a great way to mimic nature and increase organic matter. Along with that, we really want to have ground covers in our garden. And you can be there, it’s very popular, it’s very popular to use ground covers that are evergreen like IVs, things like that, they can be helpful.

But more I’m thinking deciduous ground covers like clovers and perennials that get recycled into the soil every year and improve the soil when the recycled and also improve the soil, just by being there and covering it and protecting it. And speaking of clovers, if you’re doing a lot of vegetable gardening, where the bed is empty during the early spring and fall, it’s great to plan a cover cop of legumes like clovers and that is they bring nitrogen into the soil, provide a lot of benefits or sometimes grasses are good for or they bring in other benefits, but just always making sure your soil is covered in plants is a great way to make sure that’s always going to get a lot of organic matter.

So you can see how nature gives us a lot of clues as to how to improve organic matter. In the long-term the sustainable way to do it, is to plant a lot of plants that are going to be loosing a lot of leaves and making a nice mulch for you, having cover crops on the ground all the time, just always under social cover is a good way to do it. And then in the short-term, we might bring in some composed and some leaf mulch, some straw mulch to get that organic matter happening much more quickly.

So that’s really important. Step number two is organic matter. It does allow for our garden. In the next video, I’m going to get in to the third step to building a healthy garden ecosystem. As for all the things I talked about today, I do get in to them in much more detail in the academy in my on-line gardening course, so mulching and composting and cover cropping, all of that in a lot more detail. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, the price is going to be going up on Monday night, so if you’re interested in that you might want to have a look at that right now.

In the last post I talked about improving soil mineralization.

Now I want to discuss another aspect of organic soil health that is important for so many things: organic matter in soil.

Organic matter refers partially to living things like roots and fungi, but in this context it mostly means everything that used to be alive.

That means fresh fallen leaves and recently deceased snakes and beetles, to the coarse mulch layer when these things are partially decomposed, to the very stable humus when they’re fully broken down which stays around in the soil for years. Read More

How To Use Mulch – Mulching Trees Vs Vegetable Garden

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Phil:Hey Guys! It’s Phil from smilinggardener.com and today we are talking about how to use mulch and a quick reminder if you haven’t signed up for the 15 Vital Lessons For Becoming A Better Organic Gardener, you can do right on the homepage of smilinggardener.com.

So H, do you remember when we used to mulch at aunt Tina and uncle George’s?

H: I do. I think we have pictures somewhere of that.

Phil: Wow!

H: I don’t know here.

Phil: I bet it’s not digital though. I bet it’s like a film picture.

H: Oh yeah. They are like – it’s a film like 1986 or something like that.

Phil: So what did we do there?

H: Yeah. So I can remember just, you know, wrapping up use piles of leaves and jumping in them and playing in them and all that stuff. But we would, aunt Tina had us, like mow over them until they were really finely shredded and then put them on her veggie garden. She had a huge veggie garden. And I think we would turn them into the soil with like a pitch fork or something like that. So – I can remember that quite well.

Phil: And then, it’s kind of funny because we – when we became landscapers, we were using like cedar mulch for many years and then when we got into organic gardening, we were back to leaves mostly now, right?

H: Yeah. Definitely. I mean, how many yards of mulch did both of us shovel onto people’ gardens?

Phil: That was always fun though because that was lighter than like stones.

H: I loved mulching. It was like the most stratifying job, but leaves is way funnier, super easy to do.

Phil: Okay. So what I am going to talk about really quickly and there is more detail on the blog. What I want to talk about today is how to choose a mulch depending on if you are growing more like trees and shrubs, maybe an orchard fruit trees or more like a vegetable gardener annual plants. So I guess I am just going to talk, right H?

H: Sounds good.

Phil: Okay. So okay. So just quickly, this is the main point I wanted to talk about today.

Trees and shrubs like more of a fungal dominated soil food web. They really want a lot more fungi than bacteria. In order to get that, you want to definitely leave the mulch on the surface of the soil and use some woody material, some wood chips, not bark mulch. And definitely you want the wood chips from the same kind of tree. So if you are planting fruit trees or other deciduous trees, you want deciduous mulch. If you planting conifers you want more conifer mulch because if you use it with the wrong one, it promotes the wrong fungi and there is other issues. So that’s an important one.

Still leaves are always the most important part. But if you want to promote fungi, getting a little woody material in there, especially early on when you are trying to establish the fungal soil food web, that’s what you want.

Over to your vegetable garden, that’s when we definitely don’t want woody material because we want more of a balance between bacteria and fungi. So we want – that’s really leaves and maybe straw, maybe you consider turning it into the soil, just the top of the soil because you don’t want to disturb too much but just to promote more bacteria. Or even, if you leave it on the surface. You just want a very think kind of, mulch of leaves and straws and I think I carved it a little more elegantly in the blog but that’s the main thing I wanted to talk about today.Hey, what have you been eating earlier?

H: Oh! I got these little fruits from the supermarket. Actually, I already posted a picture of them on the Facebook and ask people about it. But they are like these little berry that I never had before. You know, it’s cool to be in the different country and like try something that you have never saw before but like, they are so confusing. It’s like a citricy melon and blue berry but it looks like a tomato. They are super interesting though.

Phil: What’s it called? Do you know in English?

H: No. But I put it on – asked people on Facebook. So. I am sure somebody will know what they are. I cannot translate it from Dutch. It doesn’t look like anything that I know.

Phil: So that’s facebook.com/smilinggardner, right?

H: Yeah.

Phil: And do we had question for people today?

H: Yeah. We are going to ask people, like us, when you got into organic gardening, did your practices change too, did you change the type of mulch you were using, or if you have any other questions about types of mulch or how to use mulch, that would be a good place to ask it down below the blog.

Phil: It sounds good to me.

H: Cool.

Phil: That’s all for today.

H: Yeah. Bye for now.

There are a couple of important things I want to share about how to use mulch in your organic garden.

When we were kids we would help our aunt and uncle put their vegetable garden to rest for the winter, using leaves for mulch.

We’d collect them into a pile, jump into them and play a while, mow over them with the lawnmower, then pile the mulched pieces onto the soil.

Read More