Composting & Soil Composition

By into the rustic - 12:41 PM

How To Improve Your Soil To Get The Most Out Of It

Knowing Your Soil

What is the composition of your soil? Is it sandy, clay-like, or is it evenly distributed with both elements? Ideally, when you pick up a handful of soil it should be dark, crumbly, and rich-looking. If you take the soil and can compact it into a ball then you have too much clay. If the soil feels gritty and you can see the particles individually, then your soil is too sandy.

Soil Layers

Topsoil- This layer is the top 6” of your soil where about 75% of the helpful microorganisms and earthworms live. This layer is what you fertilize and cultivate to produce better crops. So in other words, this is the most important layer of your gardens soil, so treat it well.

Subsoil- This layer is also important to gardening- This is where your root systems dwell and where you need good drainage to prevent them from either rotting from too much water, or drying out completely from lack thereof. Most root systems go down about 4-5’ so this part of your soil needs to get air, water and nutrients. Earthworms can also dig into and cultivate the subsoil as well as the layer below it.

Hardpan (or Bedrock)- This part of your soil is compact, clay like and not much life exists here. Some earthworms do cultivate down this far, and important root systems can break through this layer to reach underlying water systems that sometimes trickle through it.

Soil Tests

These will let you know the pH levels of your soil. The pH scale goes from 1 to 14 where 7 is neutral. All numbers below 7 are acidic and the ones above 7 are alkaline. The best pH level for your garden soil is between 6.3 and 6.8.

Why? Because this is the acidity level where microorganisms that aid your plants will thrive the best. If you can’t test the pH levels of your soil, just add natural compost. This will automatically correct your soil's pH levels whether it is too acidic or too alkaline.

If you want to improve the quality of your soil by adding more Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorous, (the most important nutrients your plants need) you can add any of the following organic materials below. The chart will let you know what materials you can add directly to your soil, and which ones need to be decomposed for a while first.

I recommend using only organic fertilizers to aid your soil, synthetic fertilizers although faster to obtain and use, will have negative consequences that you should avoid at all costs. When they are added to your garden, they kill off the soil life that naturally produces plant food. 

They are also all water-soluble, so one rainstorm and everything leaches away and seeps into your groundwater, polluting it. Another reason to avoid synthetic fertilizers is that they yield a short burst of energy for your plants, but won’t last the entire growing season. 

They also won’t improve the soil's texture or water holding capacity the way organic material will do naturally while adding all the nutrients your plants need to grow. So save your wallet and the environment and only use organic.

I have two chickens, two roosters, two rabbits, and two dogs, and no I don’t own an ark so save the jokes. But truth be told if you want to start yielding organic material fast, buy a rabbit to start. For such a small, adorable little creature, you’d be surprised at how much they um…go. It’s unbelievable, but fabulous for your garden. 

Also if you have a dog or a cat, hey make use of that free nitrogen, just make sure you allow it as well as any other animal waste, the proper length of time for it to break down in a compost heap so that it won’t burn your plants. 

The best trick to know if they have fully deteriorated is just to hold your hand over the pile and if you no longer feel the heat - Stick a pitchfork in it, it’s done.

Organic Fertilizer Chart

Type Contributes Facts

Compost Adds organic matter to soil, differing This is the best type of organic
proportions of nutrients fertilizer
Cottonseed Meal Nitrogen (6.9%),Phosphorus (2-3%) Acid loving crops love this fertilier
Potassium (1.5-2%)
Dried Blood & Tankage Nitrogen (5-12%), Best source of Nitrogen
Phosphorus(3-13%) quick acting, and helps soil organisms
Fish Meal, Fish Emulsion Nitrogen (6-8%),Phosphorus (13%), Fast acting fertilizer
Potassium (3-4%)
Horn & HoofMeal Nitrogen (7-15%) Fast acting fertilizer
Manure, Cow (fresh) Nitrogen (0.6%),Phosphorus (0.15%) Does not need to be aged
Potassium (0.45%),Organic Matter Low Nitrogen levels
Manure, Goat & Sheep Nitrogen (2.5%),Phosphorus (1.5%), Needs to be aged 3 months
(dried) Potassium (1.5%),Organic Matter
Manure, Horse (fresh) Nitrogen (0.7%),Phosphorus (0.25%), Needs to be aged 3 months
Potassium (0.55%),Organic Matter
Manure, Poultry (dried) Nitrogen (4.5%),Phosphorus (3.2%) High in Nitrogen, Do not add directly
Potassium (1.3%) to garden
Manure, Rabbit (fresh) Nitrogen (2.4%),Phosphorus (1.4%), Needs to be aged 3 months
Potassium (0.6%),Organic Matter
Rock Phosphate Phosphorus (24-30%) Acts slow, doesn´t burn crops
Seaweed (dried) Nitrogen (1-2%),Phosphorus (0.75%), Very good for soil because of high
Potassium (5%),Organic Matter content of Colloids-retains nutrients
Sewage Sludge (sterile) Nitrogen (4-6%),Phosphorus (3-4%), Be cautious in use, may contain
Organic Matter,Some Potassium heavy metals
Wood Ashes Phosphorus (1.2%),Potassium (3-7%) Has alkaline effect on soil

The Three Main Nutrients and Their Plant Benefits

Nitrogen- This is used by the plants to grow healthy leaves and stems. If your plants are lacking in Nitrogen, you will notice that their leaves become yellowish and they grow much slower than they should. Nitrogen doesn’t last long in your soil after it has been added, so every time you plant again, you have to replenish this nutrient.

Phosphorus- This aids in healthy root systems and flowers. This nutrient when added to your soil, unlike Nitrogen, lasts a long time.

Potassium- This helps your plants resist disease, strengthen their plant tissue, and develop Chlorophyll that helps them make their food from sunshine. This nutrient is similar to Nitrogen in that it is lost in the soil quickly and needs to be replenished often.

Organic Composting

Composting is one of the best ways to quickly make an organic fertilizer for your garden soil that will nourish and replenish the garden with all the nutrients it needs to make it grow with success.

To get started, you should have a small bucket or sealed container in your kitchen to keep all the food scraps leftover from meals inside of. A large yogurt container will work nicely. Then this can be carried and dumped periodically when full into your large compost pile.

Since it’s a small container, it forces you to do it often enough so that your kitchen doesn’t smell and flies and other bugs don’t set up shop. After each dump into the heap it’s a good idea to add a shovel full of soil and maybe some grass clippings, pine needles or fallen leaves. 

Then take a hose or a bucket of water and add enough water to make the pile moist, but not soaked. Too much water will cause the nutrients to leach out and drain away from the pile.

There are Several Ways to Make Your Own Compost Pile

1.) Plastic Bin: This is the easiest one to make and the quickest. Take a plastic garbage can or storage bin and cut holes about 3-4 “ in diameter scattered on all sides of the bin. Then take some wire mesh, and on the inside of your bin, cover the holes with the mesh using rubber cement to hold in place or some other strong adhesive that will stick to the plastic and the metal. These holes will allow for air to circulate in your bin and give the necessary oxygen to the decomposition process, the wire mesh will prevent material from falling out and critters from climbing in.

2.) Sunken Garbage Can: This is a good method for when you have only a small space to work with. Take a garbage can and punch holes in its bottom side. This will allow for drainage as the waste breaks down inside. Sink the garbage can down almost all the way in the ground and cover the top with wire mesh to keep out rodents and to allow oxygen intake. Next before adding waste, put a perforated plastic tube down the middle of the garbage can. This will allow oxygen to hit all areas of the pile. Then fill it with alternating layers of organic material around this central tube being careful not to dump any inside of it.

3.) Chicken Wired Bins: Using lightweight lumber and chicken wire you can make your own bins that can be used to decompose leaves, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps. Unless you are putting chicken wire on the top too, I would recommend not putting meats, grease, bones, or anything else that will attract a lot of vermin.

4.) Wire Mesh Cylinder: This is practical and easy to set up. The wire mesh should be of heavy-duty gage and curved to make the diameter you want your bin to be. Then using metal or wooden stakes, attach them to the wire and drive them into the ground to hold your cylinder firmly in place.

5.) Wooden Pallets: These you can find for free online or behind your local hardware or grocery store. Put 3 together and use a 4th as a door, and you have an easy-to-use compost pile.

The Basics of Good Composting

Composting is all about layering. Think of it as if you were constructing a complex yet utterly disgusting cake. You should start with the coarsest materials on the bottom of your pile first, like straw or corn stalks. This will allow air circulation on the bottom of your pile. 

Another way to get air to the bottom easily is to place your pile on a slatted wooden platform. Next, you can add a layer of sawdust or other type of absorbent material such as soil. Then a layer of garden and kitchen refuse should be added as well as dead leaves and grass clippings. 

Then on top of this layer put some manure to supply nitrogen to fuel the process. You can add differing sources of high-nitrogen items on top instead of the manure such as dried blood, feathers, and hair clippings.

Repeat these layers until your pile is about 4’ high, too much taller and the pile will lose heat and the process will be halted. Add enough water to keep it moist only or as much moisture as a wrung-out wet rag would have.

Next, you need to turn your pile with a shovel or a pitchfork every few days or about once a week to speed up the decomposition by adding oxygen to it. Frequent turns will help combat bad odors. 

You will know when your pile is done when you hold your hand over it and it no longer gives off any more heat, when there are no more foul odors emanating from it, and when the material has broken down into a brown and crumbly consistency.

If you are in a rainy season or a highly rain-stricken region, cover your pile with a piece of plastic tarp or other material so that runoff of the necessary nutrients does not occur.

The benefits of composting are shown in the results they yield. You can increase your garden's output by about 5 times if you add compost to your soil. The care that is needed to continually replenish your soil will be rewarded in the end. 

It is well worth the effort and anything less would be ultimately a waste of the cost of your seeds, your time, and the amount of groceries you will have to buy to make up for the lack of vegetables your garden produced.

Composting Directly In Your Garden

You don’t need to make the compost pile, if you want to save yourself some toil, start spreading your layers directly on your garden bed in the Fall season. First start with a layer of good decayable material like leaves, weeds, grass clippings and any veggie scraps. 

Then on top of this spread a 2” layer of manure. Next scatter some wood ashes or lime on top, and lastly cover everything with straw. Water this now and again if the weather isn’t cooperating, and when spring comes dig all of this into the top 5” of your garden soil.

Green Manure

This is another way to improve your soil. The crops that are best for green manure are the ones that grow fast, produce a lot of organic material, and also are capable of growing into the cooler weather seasons after normal harvest is completed.

The basic concept of green manure, is your grow a crop rich in nutrients, and then plow it back down into the soil. As it decomposes it will enrich the garden. 

This works best for large gardens of field crops. The most popular kinds of green manure crops are Buckwheat, Rye Grass, and Alfalfa. Clover, Oats, Barley and other legume crops are also excellent for green manure.

Tilling your Green Manure

This is extremely dense material to work into your soil so on many instances you may need to use a scythe or mow them down several times before you attempt to work them into the soil. You may need even still to go back over and over again and re-till the soil to make sure everything is evenly mixed underground. 

You can attempt to hand dig in your green manure, but it is extremely difficult and toilsome work. Just make sure that either way, your green manure is chopped up nicely so that it decomposes into your soil quickly.

Planting in Green Manure

Obviously like with any kind of composting or use of manure, you have to wait until the manure is fully broken down before planting your crops. If you live in a climate with warm soil temperatures plus an adequate amount of rain, you can probably start planting in about 3 weeks. You will know when it is ready to be planted in when the decomposed material looks just like your soil.

Mulching- Benefits and Practicality

The usefulness of mulching your garden is three-fold. First, it helps to prevent weeds from growing around your plants and choking them out of valuable nutrients and water. Second, it acts like a protective layer for the moisture in your soil, helping shield it from the sun and thus slow down the rate of evaporation. Third, this will slowly decompose and will at the end of the growing season be tilled back into the soil adding organic material to further improve the quality of next years’ plants.

Making Your Mulch

1. Rake up any dead leaves on the lawn and save any grass clippings from your lawn mower. Any wee piles that you have accumulated from your garden should also be saved and put to use

2. Spread these organic materials in layers in a compost bin or pile and add some water to give a little moisture.

3. Turn the pile every 3 days or so and add more water if it appears too dry.

4. Within a few weeks this should be starting to break down and can be added safely to your garden bed.

Manure and She-it

Having your own farm animals is a definite plus to keep your crops and the soil they grow in well taken care of. Make sure depending on where you live, that you check with your extension agent about any laws regulating the use of manure. Some areas make restrictions on keeping your manure pile 200 ft. from the nearest stream or wetland.

To best trap your animals refuse, the bedding that the animal is kept in will prove very valuable for you. Mainly because not only is the feces your goal, but the urine of animals contains the most Nitrogen of all. So highly absorbent material like sawdust or chopped up straw make excellent sources to soak up all the Nitrogen your animals produce.

The Deep Litter System

This is where you allow your animals bedding to accumulate over time, and only clean out the barn twice a year, spring and fall. So each time the bedding gets saturated, instead of cleaning it out you just add another layer of clean material. 

Then over time the layers build up and bit by bit they start composting directly in your animals housing. You will have a heck of a job hauling out all that material during the times to clean everything out, but most of the work of composting will be already done on the bottom layers. So you can then start spreading this material directly into your gardens.

How to Properly Use Manure

You can’t always directly add manure to your soil, the only exception is like the above chart mentions, with Cow manure. It is so low in nitrogen that it is safe to put in your garden bed without waiting for it to start decomposing. Everything else needs to wait the proper amount of time until it can be added.

Make piles of your manure like you do with your normal compost of vegetation. You can make these piles about 5’ or 6’ deep and about 6’ wide, but no more to prevent leaching. Cover your piles with either dirt or plastic to prevent runoff. Make sure it also doesn’t get too dry or it will lose its nitrogen and other fertilizer elements.

Be careful when using Horse manure, it often times contains weed and hay seeds, so make sure it is fully composted before adding to your garden or you will have a nightmare time keeping your garden bed weed and grass free.

Earthworms as Composting Companions

Earthworms are excellent at breaking down your compost pile into rich earth. They tunnel in and recycle as they go, loosening the soil, aerating it, and speeding up the decomposition process of your compost heap. They increase the size and quality of your topsoil by breaking up the hardpan or subsoil beneath. 

What they do is they literally eat the soil and organic matter and mix this with their digestive juices. What they excrete is a mixture or organic and inorganic material called “castings”. This “castings” is neutral in pH, it is water soluble hummus, which makes it a perfect fertilizer for your crops.

The best variety of earthworm to do your compost bin with is the Red Worm. These are also called “red wrigglers” or the “manure worm” or “red hybrid”. The most common of this type of worm are Lumbricus Rubellus and Eisenia Foetida. 

The most prevalent of the two to be found in your soil is the Rubellus, but they can not survive without being in soil with a lot of organic material. It is able to consume vast amounts of garbage and it reproduces fast.

Traditional garden worms and bait worms will not work as well for composting, they are not capable of recycling the soil as well and they don’t reproduce as much as the red worm variety.

Making a Worm Bin

This can be made of an assortment of materials such as metal, plastic or wood. Just be careful what kinds of wood you use, nothing that is aromatic (ie. Cedar, redwood) or that could be harmful to your worms.

Metal containers or plastic are best, as wooden ones will need to be dried out occasionally so that they don’t rot out. You can make your wooden box work better if you apply a good coating of varnish to it to protect the wood.

The container should be no more than 12” deep. A very deep container is wasteful since most worms tend to stay close to the surface. The width of the bin depends on how much refuse you will be dumping into it from your compost. 

Figure 1 sq. foot of surface for each pound of garbage you add each week. The average person will produce per week about 2 lb. of garbage (biodegradable food garbage that is.)

Add enough bedding material to your worm bin so that the worms can make their castings. Manure, leaves, shredded paper and peat moss make excellent bedding material in addition to your kitchen scraps. Be careful when adding manure from recently wormed farm animals, this manure will kill your worms. 

To encourage worm reproduction you can add also ground limestone or ground eggshells to provide them with the necessary calcium they need. Don’t add too much kitchen scraps so that the worms can’t break it down fast enough.

Feed the worms about once or twice a week while making sure their bedding is nice and moist.

Worm Food

Mix together 1 part topsoil and 1 part organic veggie matter such as grass clippings, kitchen scraps, etc. Add manure, and if it is fresh, add some more topsoil to this to prevent the mixture from overheating from the manure breakdown. 

If you don’t the heat will force the worms to the bottom of your bin where they wont eat or breed. Add chicken mash or cornmeal to provide the worms with the proteins, carbohydrates, and fats they need to make their eggs with.

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