Wanting to improve my soil...best, fastest, cheapest?

prairiemoon2 z6 MAOctober 9, 2007


I am an organic grower and have passively created compost every year, but really this year, I am looking at the end product and it really doesn't look like I would want. It is not like 'black gold'. It is not teaming with worms or moist or dark and crumbly. It has sat there for 2 years and I am starting to wonder if it is even valuable at all.

I also am wondering if it is worth it to me to attempt to compost. No one at our house has the back to turn compost, so if this is what passive methods produce, maybe I should be purchasing compost?

I have a fair amount of shrub and perennial borders and a small vegetable garden. Can someone suggest what the best way to improve my soil as quickly as I can without it breaking the bank? I was thinking of buying a pick up truck of organic compost and spreading it this fall, is that the best route?

Someone has recommended a local town compost that they claim is very healthy and alive. But they make it from grass and yard waste collected in the town and of course there has to be chemicals and pesticides and who knows what else going into it. I am organic and want to get the purest product I can if I am going to be buying.

Thanks :-)


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You told us what the compost doesn't look like, but you didn't tell us what it does look like.

My compost never has worms in it, but I hot compost, so it's too hot for the worms.

It sounds like you're using what I call the "pile it up and let it rot" approach to compost. If you started a pile 2 years ago, even if all you did was pile stuff up, you should have some good stuff in there. The biggest problem is that the good stuff is at the bottom and either in the middlr or at the back (depending on how you pile it up) of the pile. In other words, it's in the least accessible place. If you can move some of the pile away and get to the core, you may be surprised to find some really good stuff in there.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 12:24PM
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whip1 Zone 5 NE Ohio

The best and easiest way to improve your soil is to mulch. Add grass clippings, leaves, wood, etc. Put it right in the bed in thin layers, and let nature handle the rest.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 1:01PM
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the_virginian(Zone 7 NoVA)

I would not worry about the pesticides and herbicides in city compost since they have long been composted out of the mixture. If I were you I would get the compost delivered, spread the home made compost down first followed by the compost you purchased. After that I would do as Whip1 says and layer organic matter down and let the bugs and worms do the work for you.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 2:18PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA


Yes, I am using the 'pile it up and let it rot' method. We have already broken down most of the compost bin and shoveled out what looked useable and it is just waiting to be used. I guess I should take a photo of it...but really I don't think my camera would get the details and texture etc of it.

It is mostly broken down..looks dry and no worms in it. It is more or less a dark brown. Maybe it is the texture that doesn't quite look right. Sorry I guess I am not doing well at describing it. I can't go out and take a look at it again right now. Would you say that with the ingredients of grass clippings, leaves, yard waste and horse manure sitting there for 2 years, it has to at least be good organic matter?

Whip1 and the_virginian....
That actually sounds like a plan. What you are describing is really lasagna gardening to some degree, yes? So home made compost/purchased compost/chopped up leaves/no more grass clippings this year/....what about cardboard?
Then top the whole thing with bark mulch?

the _virginian...
Could you explain about the composting process composting the pesticides and herbicides out of the mixture? I am really a purist and sometimes I rely on that approach because it is simpler than understanding..lol. I have spent 25 years on this property, being sure nothing got past me..no pesticides or anything that could be suspected as toxic or poisonous. So I would have to be really certain that there was nothing of a toxic or detrimental nature that I would be applying to my soil. I don't know how you could be sure, since unless you knew what had been applied to all the lawns and all the trees and could then test for residue from them, you would not be able to determine with certainty that it was free of contaminants.

That is just my attempt at looking at it logically and not coming from any expert knowledge of compost or toxins. Please feel free to correct me if I am wrong.

Thanks very much ...

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 5:07PM
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I think the compost you have is probably just fine.

If it started out as grass clippings, leaves, yard waste and horse manure and is now some unrecognizable brown substance, it's compost.

You mentioned that it's dry. That could be why there are no worms. Worms need moisture. If the whole pile is dry, it would probably decompose faster if you'd water it periodically. The problem is that it's very easy to water a pile like that too much, since you can't tell what it looks like near the bottom (and that's where the water ends up. But if the stuff you got from the bottom is dry, I think it would help to get the hose out and water it a bit.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 5:38PM
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kqcrna(z6 SW Oh)

Hi pm2: You could use cardboard first then layers, but no real need to unless you have weeds or something to suppress. Organic mulches work well just placed on top of the soil, moistened, and left to rot. I do this every fall (using mulched leaves and some grass clippings) and it rots by spring planting time. Essentially composting in place, like a lasagna garden, it makes a good soil amendment, just like compost from your bin.

Besides, if you use cardboard, you will prevent volunteers from all those beautiful wintersown flowers! :-)


    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 8:34PM
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I mulch around trees and shrubs and sometimes even around flowers and other non-food plants with wood chips from my wood chip pile that the arborist left for me and adds to wheneve we have more work done (often can be had for free for the asking). The plants seem to always like it. I rarely get around to using the wood chips right away but the plants seem to like the older stuff from my pile. The older and bottom portions of the wood chip pile are full of worms. Some very old portions of the wood chip pile look like soil or compost. Jewel weed actually grows in the edges of the pile. Every tree and shrub I have mulched in this way has responded well. Sometimes I go with a thin layer of newspaper (to suppress weeds) topped with the mulch. I used some compost given away at an event by the local extension agent on a flower bed and the flowers liked it or at least were not bothered by it. It looked like it was mostly leaf mold but from the occasional bits of foil, etc. I am pretty sure that whoever made that compost was not very choosy but it still worked out well. I am attaching a link from Washington State University that discusses compost and pesticides. I don't grow food crops with any seriousness so I can't offer much on that aspect.

Here is a link that might be useful: Compost & Pesticides

    Bookmark   October 9, 2007 at 8:47PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Thanks bp...I will do that! We have had drought here this summer so it is not surprising. I haven't deliberately watered the pile more than a few times all summer.

Hi Karen :-) Sounds like I can skip the cardboard. You're right...definitely want those volunteers! lol

Thanks for the link bob. I have not used wood chips much at all. I suppose it is no different than using bark mulch, but I wonder if too much of it might attract termites?


    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 4:32AM
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The best way to improve your soil is to add organic matter, but you also need to know something about your soil at the beginning so you know that what you are doing is doing what you want. Start by contacting the local office of your University of Massachusetts USDA Cooperative Extension Service and inquire about having a good, reliable soil test done so you have an idea of the base nutrient load and soil pH and what you ned to do to correct any problems with them. Then dig in with these simple soil tests to see what you do have;
1) Structure. From that soil sample put enough of the rest to make a 4 inch level in a clear 1 quart jar, with a tight fitting lid. Fill that jar with water and replace the lid, tightly. Shake the jar vigorously and then let it stand for 24 hours. Your soil will settle out according to soil particle size and weight. A good loam will have about 1-3/4 inch (about 45%) of sand on the bottom. about 1 inch (about 25%) of silt next, about 1 inch (25%) of clay above that, and about 1/4 inch (about 5%) of organic matter on the top.

2) Drainage. Dig a hole 1 foot square and 1 foot deep and fill that with water. After that water drains away refill the hole with more water and time how long it takes that to drain away. Anything less than 2 hours and your soil drains too quickly and needs more organic matter to slow that drainage down. Anything over 6 hours and the soil drains too slowly and needs lots of organic matter to speed it up.

3) Tilth. Take a handful of your slightly damp soil and squeeze it tightly. When the pressure is released the soil should hold together in that clump, but when poked with a finger that clump should fall apart.

4) Smell. What does your soil smell like? A pleasant, rich earthy odor? Putrid, offensive, repugnant odor? The more organic matter in your soil the more active the soil bacteria will be and the nicer you soil will smell.

5) Life. How many earthworms per shovel full were there? 5 or more indicates a pretty healthy soil. Fewer than 5, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, indicates a soil that is not healthy.

This will guide you in the future and you will be able to see the changes in your soil.

Here is a link that might be useful: UMASS CES

    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 12:25PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA


Thank you for reminding me to get my soil tested! I haven't done it in a long time. I am planning on trucking in compost in the spring and that would be a great time to get my soil tested before I do.

I love your other tests, too. I know I have done the water in the hole test before and my soil is pretty good with drainage.

I did try the jar test to see if I had clay, but I don't remember the directions I had the last time being so specific about how to evaluate the results. I will have to try that one again.

I use the tilth test fairly often, to see if the soil is has the right moisture level before digging. It always will clump together and fall apart when it is poked, so that seems to be on target.

I don't think I have ever thought of smelling it..lol..I will have to try that.

As for the earthworm test. In some parts of the yard, I can find more worms than others. I have tried to keep adding compost and organic matter, but it is amazing how much you need to cover everything. This is the area that I need improvement with, so more organic matter I guess.

I definitely will get a soil test. Maybe I will get one now so that if I need to add something that needs some time to break down it will be ready in the spring. I think one thing that always bothers me about soil tests, is that the instructions tell you to take a little bit from a lot of different areas. I always feel like I am not getting a true picture when it is an average like that. But any soil test is better than no soil test, I suppose.

Well...sorry to ramble on...just thinking out loud. [g]

Thank you all again, lots of great information here and now I feel that I have a number of very specific things I can do.


    Bookmark   October 10, 2007 at 6:38PM
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I know a company which is pretty good at soil diagnostics (bodemverbetering). It is a dutch company, though they can probably give you some advice on this.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2007 at 8:01AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Thanks Jerry.. :-)

    Bookmark   October 11, 2007 at 10:03AM
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Mulching.....what does mulching have to do with poor ground.
If the soil is in poor shape, mulching can only conserve some moisture....if it has or is given moisture.
Mulching will do nothing for poor soil.

And P.M......don't just pile stuff into your garden and hope, over time, it creates its own compost pile which feeds your garden. It wont.
If that were the case, then why would the need to begin a compost pile in the first place be encouraged.

You may be tempted to use compost as a soil conditioner before it is ready. If the organic materials have not completely decomposed, plants growing in the amended soil may turn yellow and appear stressed. As the decomposition process continues near plant roots, soil micro-organisms compete with plants for nitrogen. Organic acids in undecomposed compost may also be harmful to plant roots.

Compost is finished when the original organic materials are no longer recognizable and are no longer generating a significant amount of heat. Finished compost should have a dark, crumbly appearance and an earthy odor.

If you can purchase, at a reduced price. some good organic material, then what is the problem. Farms regularly put out signs at the end of their driveways the availability of manures....cow, sheep, poultry....et al.
They know the value of such manures and know too how aging them makes them valuable to the home gardener.
Don't use manures of less than 1 year's composting.
(except rabbit --which can be put directly into your garden)

It comes down to: if you can, do.....
if you cant......teach.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2007 at 10:07AM
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I'm quite sure you've seen pictures of our gardens on the WSForum in the last couple of years. There is no way I could have achieved what I did in the last few years without changing the soil structure. DH has even begun to garden and just 'turned over' his small veggie bed only to find the most beautiful dark soil in it. It used to be hard and dry...

The soil was changed in a couple of ways. One was by hot composting, but sometimes I would have too much stuff for the four pallet bins, so I would throw the stuff in piles behind boulders on the property, hence cold composting. Last year I started visiting those cold piles and liked what I saw in the middle to bottom parts. Not totally decomposed, but most of it great stuff, so in the gardens it went. There are three more dump/cold compost piles behind these boulders which will be going into new beds this fall.

I'd also like to note that 'leaf mold' piles are also fantastic if you have room. We do and after a couple of years of forgetting about them, it's NICE to remember them and play with that stuff. Like forgetting candy in the kitchen cupboard and finding it one day when no one else is home... LOL!

How do we apply all this stuff? Lasagna gardening and mulching, mulching, mulching! Some of it isn't 100% finished compost, but that's OK. Maybe I'm wrong, but trying to make sense of it, I surmise that unfinished morsels provide food for the microherd and the worms keeping things active as the compost is transferred from the heap to the gardens. Just makes sense to me.

If we wish to continue to make sense of it, we can also entertain the thought that unfinished compost will continue to attract worms for a longer length of time than finished compost, and that unfinished compost will provide nutrients to the soil for a longer period of time as it continues to end it's process of decomposition and consummation. Plainly speaking, that stuff has got to provide something to the soil when it rains, right?

We all compost in different ways. As gardeners we have a certain curiosity - or at least I do - about the process. Whether we hot or cold compost or lasagna our way into a garden, it really doesn't matter because in the end we are all creating compost piles which feed our gardens.

If you are iffy about using the 'town' compost, you should be able to visit their facility and ask questions. I had to use compost from our municipality when we first started and we had no compost. I went to the plant and asked all kinds of questions. In the end I purchased 3 yards of excellent compost to start us off and would never hesitate to do so again.


    Bookmark   October 11, 2007 at 8:12PM
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In my experince, the best way to improve your soil quickly is to throw ~1/4"of compost on the poor areas. Composting a huge yard would be painfull to spread at 1 CU/1000 ft^3 but adding homemade compost in the poor areas, over time will dramatically improve the soil. Compost does not need to be tilled or overly conditioned prior to use. I have placed rather large clumps of compost on poor areas and after a couple of mows have forgetten where those areas actually were.

Compost happens, it's as easy as that. If you don't believe me, take a walk through a nearby forest that has thrived in an environment with no fertilizer, watering, tilling, etc.

    Bookmark   October 11, 2007 at 11:01PM
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Tiffy--what is the WSForum?

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 12:38AM
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Many people mention using wood chips but something we need to consider is whether they are as sustainable, and readily available, as tree leaves.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 6:48AM
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Good point kimmsr. I certainly don't have wood ground up just for mulch or compost purposes but if it's around anyway and I can divert it from the landfill for gardening purposes I do. It is amazing how much of this stuff just gets hauled away to be put to no practical purpose. Even worse, a lot of lanscaping debris gets illegally dumped on parks, wetlands, churches, local forests, etc. where it actually becomes a problem instead of an asset. BTW, depending on the time of year and the particular tree being ground, some of my wood chip loads have included a lot of leaves ground up in the mix.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 8:57AM
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... Tiffy--what is the WSForum? ...

I believe that it means Winter Sowing Forum.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 12:20PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Hi Nicole...Yes, I have seen pics of your gardens. I think you responded to my recent question on the Winter Sowing Forum about hummingbirds too. Hot composting....something we can't do at our house. No one has a good back to be able to turn the piles over. I wish we could. We have only been able to passively compost by piling up grass clippings, leaves and yard waste. Actually, I am begining to doubt that compost done this way is very effective. I find mine does break down, no problem, but I am not seeing a lot of biological activity in the pile..no worms really. I would like to think that it is at least organic matter.

So when you are mulching with your cold compost...this to me is just like top/side dressing right? I would think the worms would come up to find something to eat? That as it breaks down further on the top, the nutrients that are in it are watered down into the root zone when it rains, wouldn't that be the case?

I used to read Ruth Stout books about the 'No Work' garden and how she just mulched everything thickly all the time and her soil changed from not so good to excellent soil, just doing that. Aren't there a sub group of gardeners now who also don't think tilling the soil is a good idea and they like to just mulch for this reason as well?

What were the questions you asked at the town compost area? So you wanted organic, non toxic compost and the answers to your questions made you feel that is what you got?

bob...I would have to agree...to cut it down for mulch would be horrible, but once it is cut down for some other reason, it has to go somewhere. I wonder though, now that there are so many diseased trees that are cut down, rather than just trees that weren't in the right place, if it is such a good idea to use wood chips without knowing what trees they are coming from?

bpgreen...WSForum is the Winter Sowing Forum.

    Bookmark   October 12, 2007 at 4:34PM
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I have to agree that a pile made with grass clippings, leaves, and yard waste - in my experience - does take a bit longer than, let's say, those which have other materials added to them such as UCGs (used coffee grounds) and seaweed and such. As you well know, moisture is also another influential factor.

You are right about everything you question/state in the second paragraph as I see it that way as well.

In regards to Ruth Stout, I just read her book last year and found it interesting. Someone on this forum - can't remember who - often writes that tilling the soil upsets the living organisms/microherd/etc. in it, and that for that reason it should not be done. My view is that if it works for you and you have the equipment and vertebrae and willingness to do the job, then go ahead but it's truly not my cup of tea. There are too many rocks/boulders for me to even start thinking about tilling anyways. :O)

For questions about the compost obtained from your town, you can ask such things as
- How do they sort the incoming organics and how particular are they about what stays in and what doesn't. In our municipality's case, the organics come from all households and are picked-up every second week from the curb. You never know... But I got to see the sorting area and was impressed.
- What temps do they let the compost rise to? How long does it stay there? What determines when a pile is finished? Do they ever test them for residual chemicals from lawn clippings and such? If not, how can I be reassured that there are no such residuals? (Our guys actually take random samples and send them to independent labs.)

During my visit, I got good informative answers. I also asked about the level of experience/education of the folks managing and working the facility and was really impressed by that!

    Bookmark   October 13, 2007 at 4:02PM
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habitat_gardener(z9 CA/Sunset15)

"best, fastest, cheapest": you know the rule of thumb that you can only get 2 out of 3, right?

Cheapest: use free materials for mulch.

Wood-chip mulch is easy to get from local tree trimmers in most places, and it's better than any mulch you could buy. Usually, it's mostly chipped branches and leaves ("ramial wood chips"), which is what you want -- if you just make a pile of this stuff for a couple years (and let it get rained on or water it), it'll turn into compost, because it's a good mix of browns and greens. I use this kind of material in my garden paths or as a "brown" for my compost bins. Occasionally I sift the material in my paths and harvest some compost, or use the path material as browns. After it's been in my paths for at least 6 months, I use it as mulch in my garden beds, because by then it has broken down a little and I can remove the larger chunks. Also, if it includes something that may have a tiny, marginal allelopthic effect such as eucalyptus, by then the allelopathy will have gone. I've never suspected that the mulch I used had diseases or chemicals, but if it had, using it as path mulch first mitigates any harmful effects (and I assume it would smell or look bad) and gives the soil microfauna a chance to break down any organic chemicals before I let the mulch come in contact with my plants.

We also have free horse manure (from horses that don't get dosed routinely with antibiotics or pesticides), so I also use that as a path mulch and a brown. If I had a garden bed that was not in use for the winter, I would pile on 6 to 18 inches of mixed manure and ramial wood chips now, water it weekly if it didn't get rained on, and expect to have it mostly broken down in time for spring planting. I did that last year with just horse manure, though I did plant fava beans in the horse manure (actually a combination of manure and wood shavings) as a cover crop and then turned them under before planting.

Best: The best way to improve any soil is to add mulch and compost.

That's because the main task in gardening is to build the soil. To build the soil, it's necessary to support the soil microorganisms that feed the plants. To feed the microorganisms, you need to provide the raw materials they need -- good compost! (To learn more about supporting the soil foodweb, see the book Teaming with Microbes.) Google Linda Chalker-Smith horticultural myths for a great series of informative studies -- though a horticulture professor, she was especially surprised that mulching alone, then walking away for 6 months, was enough to substantially improve poor soil at a site she planned to work on.

I don't turn my compost pile, either, and I get good compost. (Well, I intend to turn it, but I never get around to it.) I do sift it, though, and every time someone walks by my community garden plot when I'm harvesting compost they compliment me on it. I use a black plastic nursery flat with small holes to sift it -- maybe a little labor intensive, but it goes fast enough. I use the larger pieces as "browns" as I add kitchen or garden waste to the bins, or else I put them in my paths, where they also break down. I get kitchen waste from a couple households besides my own, and I love having the opportunity to turn waste into such a valuable product.

The secret to getting good compost without turning is to add some water every time you add greenwaste to the bin. This usually means rinsing out my compost containers, or else watering the bin at the same time I'm watering the garden.

I like my compost a lot better than the city compost -- it looks and smells alive. Usually, municipal compost is heated to temperatures high enough to make sure all pathogens and weed seeds are killed, so it's good for soil structure, even if it does not contribute beneficial soil fauna. The hot composting process breaks down almost all organics, including pesticides (except for clopyralid, the one lawn chemical that has been shown to persist in compost), but it has no effect on heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, or cadmium. THe periodic testing ensures that large batches are not toxic, though rarely a batch can slip through: a local garden writer was having no success with her spring garden and finally had the compost tested (she'd gotten compost from her local nursery for decades), and found out it had heavy-metal contamination. So you are taking a small risk when you buy products, rather than recycling onsite.

Fastest: Hmm, gardening is antithetical to the notion of "fast." But in my experience, mulching is the most effective way to improve any garden, and it has an effect within weeks or months. Since you're in a snow zone, I assume that you have until spring. But really, soil improvement is a process, not a one-shot. I add homemade compost to my garden at least a couple times a year (I'm finally making enough so that I *have* to do this), and I cover the compost with a thin layer of mulch, since I live in a summer-dry climate and the mulch helps protect the soil and reduces the amount of water I need to add.

    Bookmark   October 14, 2007 at 1:52AM
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habitat_gardener(z9 CA/Sunset15)

is Linda Chalker-Scott's hort myths website. THe one for November 2000 includes her anecdote about mulch. THe site was too hard to get a core sample, they dumped wood-chip mulch on it, a month later they were able to dig a shovelful of loamy soil. One month -- that's pretty fast.

Here is a link that might be useful: hort myths

    Bookmark   October 14, 2007 at 3:52AM
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Big can of worms (or actually that would be great for your soil)

Anyway, below is a link for those who argue that mulching without proper composting is bad.

Many people sheet compost or lasagna garden and it works great for them.

The quickest, cheapest, easiest, and best way to improve soil is to mulch with organic matter.

If you want quicker than mulching you want very complete cured compost that you can till into the soil, however this usually isn't easy and probably not cheap. Oh, and it will only last so long. Improving soil not only takes time but it also must continue.

There is nothing cheaper than spreading free materials around your garden. (you compost is probably just fine for spreading around your garden.) You should not till in high carbon mulch materials as their decomposition will require nitrogen. If they are tilled in, they will compete with your plants for the nitrogen that is in the soil until they decompose at which point the nitrogen will be available to the plants again but some high carbon materials like wood chips are slow to decompose.

To get easier than spreading free materials on your gardens you would have to train your trees and wildlife to drop their leaves and wastes onto your gardens in nice layers the way you like. Novel idea but I don't know how it would be done and definitely not on a budget.

Best way to improve soil may be open to debate. Getting good complete soil and plant tissue tests done to determine what your soil has and what the plants need might be the first step. Then you need to figure out how to supply the needed or missing elements. This might entail getting your compost and other possible amendments tested as well as having a biological chemistry degree to understand all these tests to know what things should be added to your soil in what ratios and at what time to improve the soil the most. This approach is probably not what you would think of as fast, cheap, or easy.

What I have seen from adding organic mulch to gardens and pathways.
*it greatly improves the soil moisture
*attracts composting critters including worms
*improves soil texture (I know this personally for sand and have heard many people say it does for clay.)
*helps against weeds- (it may not stop all weeds but the looser soil makes pulling weeds a bit easier.)

Here is a link that might be useful: Horticulture Myths

    Bookmark   October 14, 2007 at 12:36PM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Lots of great info in your posts..I will respond more tomorrow but today I have another related question. Someone recommended some cow manure that is available to me locally. It is from dairy cows and the company said it is straight cow manure with wood shavings in it that is composted in wind rows and then sifted. They sell it for $35. a yard with a 5yd minimum for delivery. I was just wondering if I spent that much on this product, would it be the best material to put down this fall? I just wondered if I should hold out for something with different ingredients that might offer more fertility and nourishment to the micro herd?

    Bookmark   October 15, 2007 at 5:29PM
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kqcrna(z6 SW Oh)

pm2: I have no experience with manure. Being a city kid, I've never had easy access. If I did I'm not sure I would use it, though, due to the possibility of E.coli and disease. But many people swear by the great garden results they get with manure, and I can't argue with that.

But I guess I'm cheap. I don't think I'd spend $40. I'd use what I could get for free. (After running out of leaves this summer I almost choked when I had to spend $5 for a bale of straw).


    Bookmark   October 15, 2007 at 8:04PM
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If the manure is composted for a reasonable amount of time (at least 3 or 4 weeks), E. coli isn't that big a concern. The danger comes when the manure is not composted or aged. Heat and time will kill E. coli and time/leaching will take care of burn from too much nitrogen and salts in the urine.

Use what is reasonably available. Poop (I mean manure) is an excelent source of organic matter for your soil as welll as nutrients. It might be a little $$ so you will have to decide if it is worth it or if you can gather enough other materials for less. You are getting into leaf season there so that is a great source of material. It all depends on how big a space you are trying to improve and what sort of condition it is already in.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   October 15, 2007 at 9:07PM
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kqcrna(z6 SW Oh)

tclynx: Yes, I am aware of all those facts about composting manure. Problem is, if you obtain it from another source, you have no idea how it was handled. And I wouldn't trust myself to do it either. Usually my compost will get to 150 degrees after I add new fresh material. Sometimes it does not. This summer's extreme heat and drought have made it challenging, both in terms of availability of green yard waste and in holding enough moisture.

Like I said, I know that many of you use manure with great results and no disease. I'm not arguing with that. But you are pros, and I'm not. I don't go near the compost all winter. I ignore it for weeks at a time when it's 100 degree weather. I think some of us are just better off knowing where to draw the line.


    Bookmark   October 16, 2007 at 6:41AM
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That some people find, after dumping a lot of organic matter on soil, that after a bit of time that soil is now easily worked never ceases to amaze me. Many of us, Starting with Sir Albert Howard, have been saying that for years only to be told that 1)it does not work, 2) it is too much work, 3) it is immposible to get that much organic matter, and probably a hundred more reasons why organic gardening is impractical.
The nutrients in manures are water soluble, readily available, and if piles of manure, with insufficent levels of organic matter added (a ratio of 3:1 veggie waste to manure) those nutrients will flow out of the manure with the water and pollute the water supply with nitrates and disease pathogens, you read about that happening 3 or 4 times a year, if you pay any attention to the new at all. The best use of manures is to pile them up with veggie waste in a compost pile to stabilize those nutrients.

    Bookmark   October 16, 2007 at 7:14AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA


Well, all of you helped me really zero in on what I could do for my soil this fall. All of your ideas were stirring around when I was working out in the yard yesterday. I was planning to deconstruct an old cement block veggie bed and use that area to extend an existing shrub border. I had some help to make all that happen, so that made a difference.

Well, when I went to pull apart the veggiei bed, I found some delicious looking soil..lol. It was so friable and dark and plenty of worms in it. I remembered that I had pretty much lasagna layered chopped leaves and grass clippings to start that bed, so I am going to use some of that soil to add to some new raised veggie beds.

This did give me the idea to try that again when extending my shrub bed. So, I had two plastic composters full of unfinished, dry yard waste, 2 leaf bags full of old grass clippings, a 5 gallon bucket of wood shavings and a leaf bag full of fresh lawn clippings. So we layered that in the newly extended bed, sprinkling generously with some of that good soil in between every layer and other soil that I was looking for a place to use. It is about a 16 x 6ft area of border and it looks great already. Sort of like a berm. I am feeling very satisfied and excited thinking of how great that soil will be in the spring.

Plus now I have all empty compost bins and ready to start collecting more leaves, hopefully. So, I am rethinking my ability to make enough compost for myself. Maybe instead of working the compost bins and having to turn them over, I can just use them to collect enough materials in and then lasagna layer all my beds to improve the soil. That might work if I can collect enough materials.

I already have my own leaves and one neighbor still gives me all of theirs. I may ask for more donations from the rest of my neighbors of their leaves.

    Bookmark   October 17, 2007 at 11:24AM
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I cruise the neighborhood the evening before yard waste collection day and collect any bags that look like they might contain nice leaves or grass clippings. Since I don't have a chipper/shredder yet I usually avoid the ones that appear to be full of sticks.

I still never have enough organic matter. Leaves!!!! I want more leaves!!!!! It has been months since I got any good batches of leaves. I'm still waiting for a "leaf season" here in central FL, not sure if it exists but the closest thing might be spring for the oak leaves.

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 1:13AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

tclynx...I want to start collecting more leaves but don't you feel like you should ask people to take their leaves? I always feel like I should, even though they are obviously putting them out to be taken away. I just feel like a leaf thief..lol.

    Bookmark   October 18, 2007 at 1:17PM
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I have just recently put down the lasagne layers in several different areas of my garden and out in a bigger open area (mainly there to control the weeds and help the clay soil) and so far I can really see a difference in the garden area AND the other area too...I think it's going to be a great garden spot this coming year!!!

I was just in Toronto (in outlying suburban area) and was foaming at the mouth when driving through the neighborhood my cousin lives in...BAGS OF LEAVES EVERYWHERE....If I would have had a few extra suitcases, I might just have loaded em up....

and the best part, they were all in neat tidy Home Depot PAPER leaf bags...the extra big ones. What envy I had.

If I lived there, I'd have the best compost pile ever, sigh...but soon enough, the leaves here will start falling and I'll be on the hunt for them. I'm like someone else on here who said they feel like a theif if they dont ask and I too feel like I should ASK to take the stuff at the curb....It's actually worked out nicely when I have spoken to someone, since they usually tell me to come on back anytime for more and take what I want when it's out there.

I have also found a good amount of "green" from a local horse person....moldy hay they cant use...and it's great for the last layer (although that might not be lasagne correct layering) It actually works great to anchor everything else underneath...I did cardboard several layers thick..then grasss clippings, then more cardboard and then hay. I didn't have any food scraps of any volume...but it seems to be working...

    Bookmark   October 19, 2007 at 9:20AM
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I'm not sure there really is right and wrong lasagna layering.

When I do see people with yard waste bags out and I talk to them, they seem very happy for me to take it. They think I'm a little strange but apparently it's no skin off their nose If I want their leaves.

I'm now hoping to catch the neighbor near by who has trees covered with spanish moss. It is a great moisture holding layer.

Now if you are in a count that sells the composted yard waste, watch out, the county might not like you steeling the compostables that they are getting paid for twice (first residents pay to have pickup and then the county composts it and sells it.) Luckily my county gives the compost away for free.

    Bookmark   October 20, 2007 at 10:06AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

That's very interesting. Nice to know I'm not the only one that gets that feeling about picking up the leaves. [g] I have an arrangement with one of my neighbors and I think I am going to take a walk around the neighborhood and check out some more people. No one is putting leaves out here yet. There are plenty left on the trees still.


    Bookmark   October 20, 2007 at 10:54AM
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hamiltongardener(CAN 6a)

I was just in Toronto (in outlying suburban area) and was foaming at the mouth when driving through the neighborhood my cousin lives in...BAGS OF LEAVES EVERYWHERE....If I would have had a few extra suitcases, I might just have loaded em up....

and the best part, they were all in neat tidy Home Depot PAPER leaf bags...the extra big ones. What envy I had.

It's nice, isn't it? Those leaves are headed for the compost facility, but I have grabbed a couple here as I drove by. It's that time of year for us.

    Bookmark   October 21, 2007 at 6:11PM
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Prariemoon2, I am just starting to compost and like you I don't have the upper body strength to turn the compost. After reading about how to compost and looking at some composters, I decided to do my version of the rolling bins (the more expensive ones.)
I got a plastic barrel and drilled some holes in the side for air holes and cut a hole in the top to put the materials in and to remove the compost. To turn my compost I will just roll the barrel. I'm just hoping it will work.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2007 at 8:30AM
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Hamiltongardener, I'm curious (as my cousin explained to me, the kitchen/yard waste goes to the compost center and then they can go and get truck loads of it later on)....is there any reason they could not just lasagne compost on their own? they own their own home... and save all their scraps for their own use? I thought of it after I left, that if I had access to all that good stuff, I'd be doing it in my own back yard and not sending it off to have someone else do for me, then only to have to add one more step to the process (going back to get it when it's done)

    Bookmark   October 22, 2007 at 11:25AM
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rjinga, I don't know about the area you guys are discussing, but here in Tennessee most people just don't want to fool with it. The idea of a pile of garbage rotting in the back yard is distastful to (foolish :D uneducated) people. It takes up space in the backyard, and straight leaves need to be shredded and mixed with a little something to compost well, and be kept moist.

I really wanted to chime in and agree with the leaf patrol. I feel like a big ol' leaf buzzard, circling for dead stuff. :D Right now, I'm looking up and down my suburban street as I drive by, and noticing how many people have several pumpkins sitting somewhere as fall decoration. I've hatched a plan of taking my little garden wagon down the sidewalk to go door to door and offer to take them away after Halloween, or perhaps after Thanksgiving.

My neighbor across the street is nuts for Halloween. She has 24 -- count'em! -- 24 bales of straw with her plastic pumpkin collection displayed for Halloween. I asked her, and she said I could have them on November 1st, and that her husband would put them in the back of my truck. She warned me that they would be "nasty" because they got rained on. I'll use it for mulch, but still....that's a lot-o-straw, even taking some to my mom to use, so I figure a few pumpkins would help decompose a bale or two in my compost pile.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2007 at 11:58AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

sweetkountry...I had an idea to do that at one point, but I never got around to it. I would be fascinated to hear how your experiment goes. Have you already made the barrel? I am assuming you are talking about one of the large plastic trash barrels? Why wouldn't you just use the cover on it with a bungee cord and take it off the add/remove ingredients?

petalpatsy...all those bales of hay and pumpkins to boot! Sounds like heaven..lol.

    Bookmark   October 24, 2007 at 6:35AM
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Those people that put the large bags of leaves on the curb (or kerb) think of them as a waste product that needs to be hauled away and disposed of someplace, just get them out of sight and mind, so they really do not care, mostly, that you take them. However, keep in mind that some people do mind, because they have paid to have those leaves hauled away. Some years back, on the way home from work on night (like around 11:00PM) I picked up several bags of leaves from one home, on the curb, and the homeowner reported the theft. As an active member of the fire and EMS service at the time my vehicle was easily recognized by the emergency dispatchers and the law enforcement officer that finally pulled me over to let me know I had ben spotted stealing someones leaves. As a rule, however, I have not had a problem, and often have had the homeowner help load those leaves, looking at me as if I had a screw loose all the while.

    Bookmark   October 25, 2007 at 6:42AM
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prairiemoon2 z6 MA

Gosh kimmsr...that is some story. Just imagining being in that position of being reported for leaf theft makes me cringe. [g]

You see, that last phrase..'the homeowner looking at you like you had a screw loose.'...that is the one that keeps me from asking the homeowner. lol

In our community leaf pick up is by the town.

Thanks for sharing that story kimmsr.. :-)

    Bookmark   October 26, 2007 at 7:33AM
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