Sharon Thompson

Local gardening: Love your garden; feed it good food

sharonfthompson@gmail.comFebruary 14, 2013 

I’m not much of a fertilizer-er. I always mean to, but somehow I never get around to it. The regimen seems to too daunting for liquid fertilizers: “apply every two weeks.” The chemical aspect of other options holds little appeal to my tree-hugging inclinations.

I rely on creating happy soil that will fertilize itself.

When we decided to move from our old house, my husband asked if I would be sad to leave the plants I had nurtured during our 24 years there. “Heck no!” I’d be sorry to leave behind the soil I had “grown.” Years of adding horse manure, leaves, and mushroom compost to the dirt had produced the Holy Grail of gardening: well-drained, water retentive soil.

After 10 years at our “new” landscape, the soil growing process has been slower due to the size of the project – but success is coming. By putting layers of organic products on top of our red clay every spring (and sometimes every fall), a thin layer of dark brown, happy-looking soil is appearing.

You can’t hurry love or soil building.

Lurking in the nooks and crannies of all soils are billions of microscopic organisms looking for a meal of organic matter. When they encounter these good eats, they change this material into nutritional products that plant roots can absorb, improving the vigor of the plant. These nutrients are available in a less soluble form than those of chemical fertilizers and are released more slowly, making them available over a longer period of time. Think of organic material as a high fiber diet for your soil.

So what’s wrong with reaching for the bag of 10-10-10? Nothing, except its high salt content is detrimental to those desirable microbes in the soil. Chemical fertilizers feed only the plant and not the soil and tend to feed the plant in one big meal – beware the fertilizer burn. So why not feed your plants with products that will also feed your soil?

My preferred soil amendments include mushroom compost, fine pine bark (often sold as soil conditioner) and Erth Food*. Distributed across the top of the soil by the shovelful, they eventually penetrate the soil’s surface – there is no need to dig them in. On top of this, I sprinkle handfuls of fertilizer – usually composted cow or chicken manure – around perennials and shrubs.

Every other year, I use a locally made fertilizer called Purely Organic that is composed of multiple organic ingredients and loved by rosarians. My dogs love it too: irresistibly drawn to the aroma, they alternately wallow in it and eat it. Thorough watering after application helps with the aroma issues. Other organic fertilizers from Espoma and Happy Frog are equally effective. Remember to follow label recommendations.

My other “fertilizer” choice is mulch, applied as liberally as possible, every spring: pine straw, hardwood bark or leaves. Whatever organic product you use as mulch will eventually break down into organic fertilizer.

To show my garden how much I care, every February I gather as many bags of soil amendments as the budget allows and lovingly layer them over and around our landscape. By the time summer sets in, I know the garden and I will keep calm and carry on, fortified by a firm foundation of healthy soil.

Master gardener Sharon Thompson has been gardening since moving to the Midlands in 1978.

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