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September 10, 2021, 4: 04PM
Updated 12 hours ago
Next spring’s good garden starts right now because, as the old saying goes, a garden is only as good as the soil it’s planted in.
September and October are ideal months to refresh the soil’s fertility here in Sonoma County, whether the garden is for edibles or ornamentals.
Over the past growing season, your garden soil has been depleted of plant nutrients. The most obvious reason is that the plants you grew have taken up the soil’s nutrients to build their tissues, especially the big three nutrients: nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
But over those warm months, the life in the soil — microbes, fungi, worms, spiders and many other creatures that live there — also has taken up nutrients to build their populations. Unlike the plants that take nutrients straight from the soil, the animal life in the soil operates by causing organic matter to rot. Throw some dead plant matter on bare soil and it immediately will be attacked by microbes and other soil creatures that will dismantle it and return it to the nutrients used to build plant tissue.
As these soil-dwelling creatures tear apart dead plant tissue, their numbers grow astronomically. They live and die quickly in a mad rush to consume the plant tissue. Their action is so furious it creates heat. That’s why a compost pile is warm.
As the single-cell microbes die off, their cell walls disintegrate and spill the acidic contents of their bodies into the soil solution, as water in a moist soil is called. This cell acid plays an important role in keeping soil fertile. Besides organic matter, which constitutes 3 - 5% of rich, dark, crumbly soil, most of the soil is comprised of clay particles, silt, sand and rocks. The acid from microbe cells dissolves some of the trace elements in the clay, silt, sand and rocks, which then become available to plants. That’s why farmers know clay soils are fertile soils, even though they’re dense.
So over the hot days of summer, the life in the soil literally eats up the organic matter in the soil, depleting it. Your October job is then to add organic matter back into the soil. You can do this is a number of ways, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s look at the two most common.
The first way is to simply cover the soil with dead plant matter; in other words, mulch the garden with a good 6 inches of clean plant matter. “Clean” means it has no seed heads of either crops or weeds, and also that no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides have been used on it. This mulch will suppress any weeds that might otherwise grow over the four months between mid-October and mid-February.
A word of caution: Soil microbes need a good supply of nitrogen to do their work of rotting dead plants. Farm animal manures — never dog or cat — generally contain lots of nitrogen. Cow and horse manure are problematic because the animals may be eating a lot of seeds in their hay or silage and that can seed your garden with unwanted plants. Rabbit, pig, goat and poultry manures are best. So if you are simply mulching your beds with a lot of plant matter, toss in some farm animal manure in the ratio of four parts plant matter to one part fresh manure. If you have fresh manure and add it in October, you should not plant in it until next spring. It will have rotted completely by then and really make your spring garden healthy and fertile.
Or you can buy composted manure or commercial composts, and you can safely plant in these over the winter. Compost is dead plant and animal matter predigested by microbes and is the superior product for refreshing summer-weary soil.
Besides deep mulching, the other way to refresh your garden soil is to lay the compost or manure on the surface and then dig it in with a spading fork or spade so it’s buried within the top foot of soil. But notice how nature refreshes her soil: she lays a blanket of leaves and other detritus on the soil surface, year after year, which makes for soil with defined horizons. And nature knows best.
A woman named Ruth Stout invented what she called her “No Work Gardening Method” in her Connecticut garden. She simply mulched the soil each fall. In the spring, she’d pull a handful of the rotted mulch aside and put in plants she started in her greenhouse, then snug them in by pulling the mulch back.
But Connecticut isn’t California. Stout had a 150-day growing season, so her soil microbes only worked from May to September. We have a 300-day-plus growing season — twice the amount of time for soil microbes to dismantle organic matter. That means we have to add organic matter twice — once in October and then again in late May or June when the weather turns hot.
When microbes have taken apart the plant matter and it’s entirely digested, the residue is called humus. Humus is a remarkable spongy substance with an enormous surface area due to its many channels and pits. A handful, laid out flat, could cover half a football field. Humus’ surface is negatively charged. Remember those nutrients released when microbes die — the potassium and sodium and trace elements like copper, magnesium, zinc and such? They’re plant food and they are positively charged when floating in the water in a moist soil. So they gravitate to the humus and stick there (opposite charges attract). Rains — or in our case irrigation — won’t dislodge them. They are prevented from washing away.
Nature provides her plants what they need for good health, and so there are optimum amounts of these positively charged elements in healthy soil. As they are depleted, humus lets go of enough of these elements attached to itself electrically to maintain the optimum, healthy amount in the soil.
This is just one of many natural, built-in systems that operate in healthy soil. Organic gardeners put it this way: feed the soil and the soil will feed the plants. It’s time to feed the soil.
Jeff Cox is a Kenwood-based food and garden writer. Reach him at [email protected]
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