Soil and compost

Helping garden railroaders get on track toward a great garden
Heat-loving, drought-tolerant plants such as these dwarf lavender cotton (Santolina chamaecyparis 'Nana'), 'Claude Barr' penstemon, and greenmound sage (Artemisia viridis) thrive in poor, rocky, sandy soils.
Barb Horovitz
From table scraps and lawn clippings to "black gold."
Pat Hayward
This three-bin system is easy to build and, with regular turning, will produce finished compost quickly and efficiently. Because it breaks down at a high temperature, compost from this method will be relatively free of weed seeds.
Pat Hayward
Plastic "holding" units can often be purchased through community recycling programs.
Pat Hayward
Worm bins are another alternative for recycling vegetable scraps.
Pat Hayward
Railroad track in the garden lays smooth and flat when set on a solid base. Thoughtful attention to roadbed preparation pays off in the long haul with less track movement and smoother operations. When things run smoothly, we all have more time to enjoy running trains and the good com-panionship of friends and family. In other words, we have fewer headaches and more fun. In gardening, careful bed prepa-ration leads to exactly the same results!

Garden plants have many harsh elements to deal with. Weather is probably the most influential factor on plant growth. Sun, rain, snow, hail, cold, heat, and humidity all play a role in helping you determine which plants to choose and how well they'll do in your garden railroad. Unfortunately, there's little we can do to actually effect any significant change in local weather patterns, so the best we can do is learn to live with what we've got and try to select adaptable plants.

Other external forces may come into play, often wreaking havoc in the garden railroad: slugs, spider mites, moles, cats, dogs, and errant human footsteps. These challenges, which often appear without any warning at all, are just slightly within our control. Again, there's not much we can do about them except respond as needed, take a deep breath, and carry on.

Preparing an area for plants is an activity that we do have control over. As with track and roadbed preparation, the more effort we put into garden-bed preparation, the greater the rewards. If you have a solid underlayment beneath your track, stray footsteps are less likely to cause permanent damage. If you've taken care to level the area, derailments are less likely to occur. In gardening, our best offense against potential problems is in soil preparation. The better the soil, the more successful the gardening experience. Soil is at the "root" of many gardening challenges.

Good soil

So, what makes good soil? How does the soil affect plant growth? What functions does it perform in the overall garden picture? Once you have a good understanding of the answers to these questions, you'll have come a long way toward understanding what makes a successful garden and what you can do to improve your own soil conditions. Soil improvement is a constant activity and should be incorporated into new garden preparation as well as worked into your annual gardening routines.

Good soil is necessary for optimal plant growth. "Good" can be defined many ways, but generally, plant roots require soil with two characteristics: adequate air spaces for water and air exchange and evenly sized organic particles.

This is a simple explanation, but it is a good place to start. Roots need air to breathe and water to drink, just as we do. Heavy, poorly drained (clayey) soil holds too much water and doesn't allow for air circulation. Without air, roots will suffocate and die. Fast-draining soil (sandy or gritty) cannot hold the water long enough for the roots to absorb it and the plants may die of thirst. Organic matter, such as compost, manure, or peat moss, supplies storage sites for the nutrients and minerals that are necessary for plant growth. Organic matter also helps to break up clayey soils and helps hold more moisture in sandy soils.

Every yard has its own natural soil, composed of varying proportions of sand, silt, clay, organic material, nutrients, and, of course, rocks (often big ones). In determining your own soil type, a good source to consult is a county extension office where you can find the best local information for your area. For general gardening purposes, sandy loam - a fine-textured soil composed of small particles of sand, organic materials, and a bit of clay - is the goal. (Unfortunately, most of us have likely been blessed with a backyard of hard clay, decomposed granite, or, worst of all, subsoil from our home's construction.)

The type of good soil you are striving to create also depends on the types of plants you'll be using in your garden. Native plants are more adapted to local soil conditions and often need less soil improvement to grow and bloom. Alpine plants will prefer a gritty, well-draining soil. Woodland and shade-loving plants prefer a rich, organic soil full of compost and rotted manure or bark dust. "Exotic" (non-native) plants do best under conditions that most closely represent their own native habitat. If you select plants that prefer very different conditions to what you actually have, your gardening adventure will be more of a challenge.

How do you turn your soil into sandy loam? If your soil is very sandy, you'll need to add organic matter and possibly some loamy topsoil. Clayey soil would need organic matter and possibly sand, but remember that clay, sand, and water make cement if there's not enough sand or organic matter. Gritty, granitic soils can best be improved with lots of organic matter. You can purchase sand and topsoil at landscape-supply centers. But, since almost every soil type needs organic matter, it can get rather expensive to buy. And since organic matter breaks down with time, adding it should be an ongoing garden activity, which sounds really expensive!


Let's back up and define the term "organic." it comes from a term referring to "living things." Manure is a type of organic material often used by gardeners, but it must be extremely well aged or it will burn your plants. Peat moss is another alternative but is quite expensive and requires strip mining of delicate environmental areas. Compost is a third option. You can buy commercially produced compost at garden centers or community recycling centers, or you can make your own. Composting is an easy, cheap, and environmentally sound way to dispose of kitchen and garden debris and create a product that is necessary to improve almost all soils.

I grew up with composting as a way of life, and it comes naturally to me and now to my own family. As children, we helped carry the grass clippings, dead flower stalks, and fallen leaves to the compost bins behind the house. We saved coffee grounds and eggshells in a can under the sink to put into the garden directly. I remember how, on cold winter days, steam would rise from the compost as my dad's garden fork turned the pile from one bin to another.

Even if you didn't grow up composting, it's easy to learn how. Compost is one of the best sources of organic matter and therefore one of the best things you can add to your garden. The general recipe for good compost is: green (nitrogen-rich grass clippings, kitchen peelings); brown (carbon-rich dried leaves, sawdust, straw); air; and water.

The percentage to add of each ingredient can vary, but most composters agree that equal parts green and brown is a good place to start. Compost "happens" when microorganisms feed on compostable debris and break it down into tiny particles. These tiny organisms (bacteria, fungi, centipedes, millipedes, and worms) need food (the plants, leaves, and clippings) to eat, air to breathe, and enough water to keep them working hard. The secret to good, fast compost is keeping these ingredients in the right balance. Never use meat, fish, fats, or grain products.

There are many methods of making compost. The method you choose will be determined by the amount of effort, space, and money you want to put into it. "Fast", or "hot", composting requires regular turning but can produce finished compost in one to three months. Two and three-bin systems are examples of the "turning" method, because you actively take a part in regularly turning the compost pile from one bin to another. Leaves, twigs, branches, grass clippings, and kitchen scraps can be used, but all the debris needs to be chopped into small pieces in order for it to quickly break down. Fast, or hot, composting is best because weed seeds and plant diseases are killed at temperatures of 110o-161'F, temperatures easily reached by this method. Compost bins can be made out of cinder blocks, brick, or even used wooden pallets.

A second method uses a "holding" unit and is a popular and easy way to compost. You can build your own with wood, wire mesh, or cinder blocks, or buy a commercially available plastic bin. All of these allow you to add to your compost pile regularly. This method is slower (taking six months or more to fully compost), but the plant material gradually breaks down with little effort on your part. Many communities have recycling and composting programs, and homeowners can pick up top-quality bins at reasonable prices this way. These plastic bins are simple to use and are fairly unobtrusive in the yard. Green and brown debris should be layered in or mixed before being added to the bin.

For people with confined space and limited garden debris, another composting method has recently become popular in the gardening world. It's called vermicycling or vermicomposting, and uses redworms to break down kitchen debris and straw into a nutrient-rich compost called castings. Worm bins, like compost bins, can be homemade or purchased commercially. These are a great alternative to throwing out the garbage. The slogan for an Australian product called "The Can-o-Worms" is "Taking out the garbage has never been so much fun." I know several people with worm bins who seem to love them.

Whether you choose to make your own compost or buy it, good soil can often be the key to gardening success or failure. Garden railroads have challenges enough. If you compost and prepare your soil well for the plants you've chosen to grow, you'll be rewarded for many years to come.


For more information on composting, contact your local library or community resource department. Books, pamphlets, and even videos are available on the subject. Two of my favorite books are Backyard Composting (Harmonious Press) and Compost this Book! by Tom Christopher and Marty Asher (Sierra Club Books). Check with your community to see if it offers composting workshops or sells compost bins.


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