Soil: A Living Layer of Earth

The soil in your garden and landscape should be a living layer of earth. That’s not a platitude – it’s a fact. It should be packed with microbes. A teaspoon of good soil should contain literally billions of beneficial bacteria, thousands of protozoans, and miles of mycorrhizal fungi. Billions of bacteria and miles of fungi? In a teaspoon? It may sound like fiction, but it’s true…if you have good soil!

These organisms and more complex lifeforms, such as earthworms, create a soil food web, devouring small bits of organic matter in the soil, and converting it into nutrients. Then plant roots can take in those nutrients to produce leaves, stems, flowers, fruit, and seed. Good healthy plants can fend off disease and destructive insects. However, the absence of these microorganisms and larger organisms such as earthworms results in compacted, lifeless soil. Lifeless soil, of course, cannot sustain life.

Solving the compacted soil problem

A recent non-scientific study in one Gulf Coast community not only indicated that “take-all patch” was typical in the sampling but that all the lawns tested had compacted soil. In fact, a sampling trowel broke during the testing because the ground was so hard.

The absolute best way to give your soil life again is to simply add organic material. You don’t need complicated chemicals and fertilizers. You don’t need “inoculants.” You don’t need humates. All you need is simple organic compost. In fact, good organic compost contains all the required microorganisms to inoculate soil and also contains nutrient-rich material. Compost will not only decompose slowly but will also feed all the tiny animals that live there. Here are some typical ways to bring your soil back to life with microorganisms.

Lawns

Spread organic compost evenly throughout the yard about ¾ inch deep. If you can’t do it yourself, hire a landscape crew to do it. Many of them will pick up the compost for you as well if you pay for it beforehand. After spreading, if you feel it looks unsightly, hose it down into the lawn or take a broom and sweep it down.

Do this twice a year – once in September or early October. Add it again about mid-April or early May. These are optimum times to compost your lawn. However, compost can be spread on turf anytime.

If you’ve got St. Augustine grass, compost is about all you’ll need. You don’t need to dethatch. If you mulch your grass clippings, you probably don’t need to fertilize. If you’ve got weeds, you don’t need herbicides either. In fact, many fertilizers and herbicides actually kill soil organisms. St. Augustine grass is so aggressive and responds so readily to the microbial-rich compost that it will force out most, if not all, weeds in a matter of months. With a high level of microbes in the soil, the grass will develop deep roots and become more resistant to insect and disease damage.

Landscape Plants

Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two-foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. For beds, spread evenly at the same depth. Again, herbicides and pesticides are not necessary and can actually harm the soil organisms. Spread compost two to three inches deep around plants about a two-foot radius for shrubs and less for perennial flowers. Trees generally do not need to be composted.

Vegetable Gardens

Spread six inches of organic compost six to eight inches deep throughout the garden. Then either mix it into the soil below or simply leave it on top and set plants in it.

Remember that compost is not mulch. These two materials, although made from the same material, have entirely different purposes. Compost enriches the soil and feeds all the organisms beneath the surface. It is made of fine particles of decomposed organic material, generally what will fit through a 3/8 inch screen.

Mulch is also organic matter, but it has not broken down or decomposed. Some would say mulch is organic matter on its way to becoming compost.

Many gardeners make their own compost. However, they find they never have enough homemade compost, so they purchase more from a reputable compost provider. To find a compost operation near you, see this website: findacomposter.com.

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