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Down in the dirt

Warning: This post is not for the squeamish, because we are going to get down in the dirt. Excuse me, I mean soil. I'm always having to correct myself.

What's the difference between dirt and soil? You can talk about soil at the dinner table. Soil is refined, and it grows vegetables and pretty flowers. Good soil promotes healthy growth in my garden. These are spring photos. On the lower left is the herb bed

Dirt is what's out in the wilds, and it grows good weeds. It gets under our fingernails and invades our homes. It is plebeian and gross, and kids had better wash it off.

Actually, it's all the same stuff. The difference is our attitude.

Soil (I'll be nice) is about 45 percent minerals or tiny pieces of rock, about 5 percent decayed plant and animal matter, and about 25 percent each of water and air. Sandy soil has the largest particles of rock, and water flows through it easily. The rock bits in clay soil are the smallest. When clay is wet, it is sticky; and when it is dry, it is hard (like concrete). It can contain lots of nutrients, but water has a hard time passing through. My pick ax and I know clay soil well, as that is what's in my yard. Loamy soil has medium size rock particles and is the ideal garden soil. Adding compost will improve the soil structure of all soils. 

I talked about compost and soil organisms in my last post, "How I spent my Christmas making mortar". According to Dr. Andrew Moldenke at Oregon State University, "Every time you take a step in an Oregon forest, your foot is being supported on the backs of 16,000 invertebrates held by an average total of 120,000 legs." I imagine something similar is true in an Alabama back yard.

All of these critters spend their lives gobbling up everything in sight, including each other. The food is processed through their systems and then excreted into the surrounding soil. This is an important way organic matter is transformed into minerals that plants can use for nourishment.

Heavy tilling and the use of chemical fertilizers and insecticides disturb the normal underground ecology. Insecticides especially interfere with nitrogen fixation, which is the process by which certain bacteria and fungi transform nitrogen in the air to ammonia, which is a natural fertilizer promoting healthy leaves and good color.

Some lawns are on artificial life support. The chemical lawn company comes in the spring, and the lawn immediately responds with green growth. A couple months later, the grass is looking sickly, so the company returns to spray again. And again. And again. I use a natural fertilizer twice a year, in spring and fall. Green-up takes longer in the spring, but my lawn is thick and healthy throughout the year.This is a summer view of my lawn.

There are many good natural fertilizers, including earthworm compost; seaweed; rabbit, cow, horse, and chicken manure; wood ash and coffee grounds; and composted grass clippings. I also like to use fish emulsion on my herbs and vegetables. It is sad that each year the average family throws away about 1200 pounds of organic matter that could be composted. As gardeners we have a responsibility to care for the earth, for ourselves and for those who come after us, and that includes the world down in the dirt where little worms dwell.

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Reader Comments (10)

Great post! This past summer I started collecting all my kitchen waste that was compost-able.... coffee grounds, egg shells, etc-- it's been working out great. My soil is feeling better and I've never seen so many earthworms!
Amazing what goodies we throw in the trash.

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJudy

Wonderful lawn, Deborah! 1200 pounds? Wow! I hope my composter and compost pile get at least 1000 pounds.
Have a New year full of joy, friendship and great plants!

December 29, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTatyana

I admit I occasionally use Scotts fertilizers (Turf Builder to be specific). My country garden has a big lawn, and I've found you need to lug home a much smaller bag of artificial fertilizer than you would an organic fertilizer, if you can even find one.

Do you have any recommendations on a fertilizer from, say, the Gardens Alive! catalog?

December 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMary Anne @StoneManorGarden

What a lovely lawn Deborah. I am a huge compost fan. I currently have three of the black plastic ones that our city provides, as well as two wire leaf composters, but it is never enough. I am researching plans on-line for larger ones that my husband can build for beside the garage. Would love to just have a big heap like my brother has, but he lives in the country and had no close neighbours. I have to be a bit more careful in an urban setting.

December 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeborah at Kilbourne Grove

I have a neighbor that owned wholesale greenhouses that corrected me years ago when I said dirt instead of soil. Ever since I've tried to make sure to call what's in my beds soil, at least around her :)
This was really interesting post. Your lawn does look like it likes the natural fertilizer it gets, it so pretty!

December 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Great post.

The ryegrass I sowed to overseed our summer lawn is up and green. No chemicals, no fertilizer. We chop our leaves. I sifted some compost to put over a place where we'd dug some overgrown shrubs. The parts with compost have a good stand of grass; the bare spots have grass coming up in almost pure sand. I do love green in the coldest part of winter.

December 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNell Jean

Great post - I use "aftercut" on my lawn during late spring and summer and an autumn feed in the winter - even then I struggle to keep it green.

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterleavesnbloom

Your garden is lovely. What you are doing is very eco-friendly and environmentally responsible. Wishing you a Happy New Year 2010!

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAutumn Belle

I enjoyed your post and what a beautiful lawn and garden! Have a wonderful new year!

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy

Great post Deborah, more people need to know about using compost! Happy New Year!!

December 31, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLinda

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