By Jan Phipps
Edgar County Master Gardener
If one of your New Year’s resolutions is to move toward more organic-based fertility for your soil and therefore the way you garden, here is some information that might help. Garden writers, myself included, consistently recommend adding organic matter to your soil for all sorts of reasons. The following additives are “organic” because they derive from living or once-living organisms or their waste.
COMPOST is first on the list of soil amendments, for good reason. Compost adds beneficial fungi and bacteria. Compost adds protein needed by micro- and macro-organisms living in the soil. It helps heavy clay soil drain faster while also allowing light sandy soil to retain moisture. I know! Pretty amazing isn’t it?
Compost is made from leaves, garden waste, and vegetative kitchen scraps. If you make it yourself, you are recycling what many consider waste. Buying it can be expensive. It will never burn plants, but also doesn’t provide much fertilizer directly to your plants. Its main use is to improve the fertility of your soil, which in turn benefits the plants growing in that soil.
COMPOSTED MANURE has varying degrees of fertility depending on the type of animal producing it. If you want something high in nitrogen, choose horse or chicken manure. Need something milder? Try llama beans or rabbit manure. Composted manure is easier to find and cheaper than yard waste or commercial compost. It is also good for both the soil structure and the micro-herd living in the soil.
Manures should always be composted before being spread on the garden, especially edible crops, because of the possibility of human pathogens, E. coli being chief among the dangers. Be aware, manure from grazing animals will contain weed seeds.
ORGANIC-BASED FERTILIZERS derive from various manufacturing processes. They also supply protein to organisms in the soil but don’t have as much effect on soil structure as compost. Some examples are bone meal, blood meal, alfalfa meal, corn gluten meal, milorganite, and fish emulsions.
Plants take longer to reap the benefit from organic-based fertilizers than synthetic ones, so plan accordingly. Because of their slow-release properties, they are excellent for incorporating into the development of a new bed. As with synthetic fertilizers, organic-based ones can cause harm if overused. Read and follow the recommendations on the package.
COVER CROPS improve the soil structure and add organic matter. Some cover crops can help break up compacted soil, and others are ornamental. Cover crops are time-consuming and must be removed or turned under before they go to seed, at which point they become a weed.
I hope reviewing these pros and cons of organic-based soil fertility choices helps you while you plan for gardening in 2020. The Illinois Extension Master Gardeners of Edgar County can be reached at 217-465-8585.