Soils, the natural garden solution

Author: Jody Taberner

Any soil type-clay, sand or loam-will benefit from the addition of organic matter.

In a clay soil, the addition of organic matter opens up the tightly packed particles, allowing for water and air to penetrate easier. In a sandy soil, organic matter adds nutrients and body to the soil, improving its capacity to hold water. Loam is what is considered the ideal soil. The addition of organic matter will keep it in the best shape, attracting worms into your soil and keeping it rich and healthy.

So what sort of organic matter is best?

Any and lots of it. Manure, straw, hay and compost.

When it comes to manure, unlike vegetables, fresh is not best. Fresh manure might not do much harm to your soil but it can burn or kill your plants.

Be especially careful of fresh chicken manure, let it age for at least 12 months to let out some of the ammonia and uric acid. Also be careful of applying large amounts of chicken manure to sandy soil, as it can possibly cause potassium toxicity.

Personally, I like cow manure and horse manure. They are milder and have a greater amount of fibrous material in them.

If you are collecting the manure yourself, check with the owner that the manure making machines haven’t been wormed recently, as parasitic worming chemicals not only kill intestinal worms, but kill the good old, hard working garden worms as well.

Straw and hay are normally used as mulch before they are dug into the soil after they decompose somewhat. This is the best way to use straw and hay and you get two uses for the one price.

Most straws and hay add little or no nutrient value into the soil, but are great for improving soil structure. If you got for pea straw or lucerne hay, both of these have the benefit of adding nitrogen as well as structure.

Compost is probably the best addition of all, with the bonus that you can make it yourself. It has already decomposed, so there is no temporary lock up of the nutrients or minerals in the soil while it breaks down. It doesn’t matter if it is home made or store bought, just keep adding it to the soil year after year.

In stores, you are likely to come across two types of compost-garden mix and mushroom. Garden mix compost is usually fairly neutral as gar as the pH goes, but mushroom compost tends to be on the alkaline side, so should be avoided in beds that contain acid loving plants like azaleas and camellias. Also avoid it if our soil is highly alkaline naturally.

When you feed your plants, keep in mind the organic fertilisers made from a mixture of manure, bone meal, straw and hay. They not only feed your plants a balanced diet of the essential nutrients and minerals, they will also benefit the soil structure as they break down. Where as chemical fertilisers give no benefit to the soil, and often give a harsh, sudden feed, leading to soft growth that is delectable to insect pests.

Worm castings are another great organic addition and are a brilliant way to recycle your kitchen scraps. A worm farm is easier, quicker and more practical for many people over composting and you won’t end up with a pile of sludge or rock hard rubble if you get the layering, watering or aeration wrong.

Organic matter is the way to go if you want to improve your soil. There are chemical alternatives that will give you a quick fix for a limited time, but a natural solution is best to get your soil up to scratch and keep it that way.

Jody has been in the horticultural industry in Australia for close to ten years.

She ran her first nursery while studying horticulture at the University of Melbourne. From there she moved on to work in three diverse nurseries in Melbourne and the country, two of which she managed.

Jody also wrote a weekly gardening column for The Weekly Advertiser for five years while running a small local nursery in Horsham.

Currently Jody is teaching horticulture at the University of Ballarat, Horsham campus and is the resident Horticulturalist on ABC Western Victoria's Monday gardening program. Jody has also set up an online plant nursery selling quality plants and gardening goods.

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