Soils here are sandy, coarse, high in pumice, and low in humus.
Acidity runs between 5.5 and 8 on the pH scale; the closer to pine
forests, the more acidic. The closer to the Sagebrush steppe the
more alkaline. Most of the soils lack nitrogen, sulfur and selenium.
The water holding capacity is low, but the drainage and aeration
are good. The soils are loose and friable. When the soil is enriched
to become a good sandy loam, it is easy to work and a joy to weed.
Testing your soil can be a helpful in determining just what it
is lacking and to give you some guidelines to improving it. Simple
testing kits are available at garden stores and mail order garden
supply catalogs. These tests will tell you the pH and the NPK (nitrogen,
phosphorus and potassium). If you want more extensive information
you will need to locate a soil lab, and it is fairly costly. One
company that does these tests is Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, P.O.
Box 2209, Grass Valley, CA, 95945. Their number is (916) 272-4769.
The pH of the soil technically has to do with hydrogen atoms, but
for our purposes it is a gauge of the acidity and alkalinity of
the soil. The pH scale runs from 0 to 14, with 7 being neutral.
Most garden plants prefer a slightly acidic soil of 6.5 to 6.8.
This is, however, variable. An acid soil of about 4.5 to 5.5 is
needed by rhododendrons and blueberries. Alfalfa likes a pH of about
Organic matter in the form of humus will correct either high or
low pH. That is why gardeners using natural matereials get such
good results; regardless of what is wrong, humus matter will correct
The following are ways to add humus:
- Mulch with hay or straw and then work the mulch into the soil
after the crops are harvested.
- Cover crops turned under into the soil.
- Sheet compost with manure and other residues and work into the
- Make compost and work it into the soil.
If your soil needs more immediate attention there are soil additives
are available. For soil that is too acidic; limestone, particularly
dolomite lime is used. It can be added anytime, and worked into
the soil or you can add it to your compost. Start with 1/2 pound
per ten square feet, work it in and test again. A lime application
usually lasts about three years.
Lowering the alkalinity is best done by adding organic matter.
Sulphur can be added if you need a quick change. One pound of sulphur
per 100 square feet will reduce the pH by one point. Dig the sulphur
in before planting, and keep the soil moist during the growing season.
It is recommended that you leach the soil well with water after
two or three months.
NPK, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, are the nutrients that
are used in the largest quantity by growing plants. These are the
only nutrients that are added by artificial fertilizers and are
what the three numbers on the fertilizer packages stand for: 10-10-10,
for example represent nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium in that
Nitrogen is a major element in plant nutrition, responsible for
producing leaf growth and greening, among other things. Plants with
yellow leaves and stunted growth, probably need nitrogen. Organic
sources of nitrogen are: manure (chicken has the highest level),
compost, blood meal, cotton seed meal and legume cover crops.
Phosphorous is important for strong root growth, brighter, more
beautiful flowers and good growth in general. Plants lacking this
element show small, thin, purplish, stunted growth and have sterile
seeds. Organic supplements include rock phosphate, bone meal, cottonseed
meal, and cover cropping with sweet clover and alfalfa.
Lack of potassium shows up as browning leaves, slow, stunted growth
and fruit. Potassium is important for strength, as it carries carbohydrates
throughout the plant. It helps form strong stems, aids in productions
of other nutrients and increases resistance in general. Supplements
include plant residues, manures, compost, granite dust, greensand
and basalt rock.
Trace minerals of all kinds are also needed by growing plants.
Minerals can be increased by kelp and seaweed products, plant residues,
particularly from sources outside the local area, and by cover crops
such as rye and alfalfa whose roots go deep into the subsoil to
pump up nutrients.
Composting is the process of decay of organic
matter which is going on everywhere in nature. Leaves and forest
debris fall to the ground, animal droppings, dead weeds and grasses
are added and all turn to compost. This is the process that returns
organic debris to the soil. The compost pile is an intensified version
of this process.
Composting is accomplished by billions of soil creatures that use
the raw materials for their development. Some of these creatures,
such as the earthworm, are easily seen, many billions more are microscopic
and only the results of their existence is obvious to the naked
eye. This decay process renders the nutrients easily assimilable
to the plants. The gardener's goal should be to feed the soil, and
the soil will feed the plants.
A good reason to compost is the increasing amount of garbage that
is a becoming a major problem in crowded landfills. It is estimated
that 20 to 30 percent of all trash consists of kitchen scrapes and
garden refuse. Anything that can be done to reduce this problem
is well worth the effort.
Another good reason is to obtain valuable fertilizer for gardens,
lawns, flower beds and house plants. There is no better fertilizer
and soil conditioner than compost.
There are a number of ways to handle composting. Your choice will
depend upon your time, the amount and kind of available organic
matter and how large of a garden space you have.
There are several methods that do not require as much space as
a pile or heap. Sheet composting is when the organic matter is spread
over the garden. Trenching is when the organic matter is buried
in the soil. Earthworm cultivation is another method used to turn
waste into rich fertilizer.
The materials most commonly used are hay, straw, barnyard and chicken
yard litter, garden refuse in the form of dead plant parts and weeds.
Any waste litter from the garden should be composted. Diseased plants
should be placed in the middle of the heap so the heat can destroy
the disease organisms.
Kitchen wastes, in the form of peelings,
cores, egg shells, coffee and tea grounds are good additives. Hair
clippings from people and pets are high in nitrogen and can be used.
Meats and bones in theory can be used, but it is best to avoid anything
in the compost that will attract dogs or other animals.
Young green plants are particularly useful. As many as possible
should be allowed to grow for that purpose. Some people even grow
plots of plants such as alfalfa just to harvest for compost. Troublesome
weeds such as tumbleweed and mustards can be used also, and are
best when young and succulent. The perennial grasses can be difficult
to get to break down, the roots are tough and resistant.
The nitrogen for a compost pile is usually in the form of manures.
Any barnyard manure is good: cow, horse, chicken, rabbit, llama
and others. Dog and cat manures are not recommended because disease
organisms may be present which are transmittable to humans. In theory
the heat will destroy these, but it is best not to take the chance.
If manure is not available, a high nitrogen substitute can be used
such as blood meal.
Leaves, pine needles and sawdust can be composted, but are slow
to break down and it helps to mix them with other materials, such
as green weeds, to facilitate their breakdown. If leaf mould is
desired, hardwood leaves are used for the compost. This is slower
to break down than the regular compost pile, as leaves are slow
Look around your neighborhood to see what agricultural and industrial
waste products are available. Some examples are wood product wastes,
mint left after the oil is removed, and wastes from canneries. These
products are often available in bulk and are cheap or free.
Hot composting is the method most people think about when we say
compost. A pile is stacked in sandwich layers with correct carbon
to nitrogen ratio to enable the materials to generate enough heat
to break down the debris. It is the most efficient method available
to the average home gardener.
The hot compost method is a good way to handle large quantities
of materials that are unpleasant to handle, such as fresh manure
or garbage. After composting, these become a pleasant-to-handle
fertilizer. Hot composting will also increase the nitrogen content
of low-nitrogen organic materials such as straw or sawdust. Microorganisms
digest much of the carbon and though reduced in bulk, the pile's
nitrogen content is increased. Another real advantage to the hot
compost heap is that it kills weed seeds and disease-causing organisms.
The most common technique is the Indore Method, and was laid out
by an English agricultural scientist, Sir Albert Howard, while he
worked in India. The materials are stacked in sandwich fashion to
ensure the correct ratio of carbon to nitrogen and also to distribute
the materials evenly throughout the pile. The work is then done
by thermophilic (heat-loving and heat-generating) and aerobic (air-loving)
The ingredients can include kinds of organic matter: hay, straw,
leaves, grass clippings, weeds, kitchen scraps of vegetable parings,
coffee grounds and egg shells, or anything you have available. Manures
are used for their nitrogen content or a high nitrogen fertilizer,
such as blood meal can be substituted if there is a shortage of
manure. The ratio of 30 parts of carbon to one part of nitrogen
is the ideal combination for rapid decomposition. It takes a great
deal of organic matter to build this pile, you may have to save
up your materials to get enough.
The decomposition takes place by the action of soil microorganisms,
primarily thermophilic, aerobic bacteria and fungi. The requirements
of these creatures, besides food, are oxygen and moisture. You will
need to keep a hose handy while making the pile and wet each layer
to the consistency of a wrung-out sponge.
Oxygen can be provided by building the pile around pipes and then
removing them when the pile is complete, leaving holes through the
pile. Other methods consist of some kind of vertical ventilator
pipe, such as plastic pipe with holes, or tubes of wire netting
built into the pile. Be careful that the pile is not tightly packed.
The smaller the particles, the faster the decomposition. A shredder
or lawn mower can be used to chop the materials to speed up the
The pile should be about five feet square and five feet deep; it
needs to be a minimum of one cubic yard for the heat to generate
properly. It is built in sandwich fashion, as follows:
- A layer of brush, such as tree prunings, is put directly on
the ground. This is to keep the pile from compacting to the earth,
as it needs oxygen circulation.
- Next layer is a six inch layer of green matter, weeds, crop
wastes or kitchen scraps.
- Add a two inch layer of manure, or one inch if it is chicken.
This can be replaced by using a thin layer of blood meal.
- Sprinkle on a 1/8 inch layer of top soil or old compost to act
as an inoculant for the microorganisms. This is also the layer
for any special additives such as lime to be added.
- Repeat these layers until the pile is about five feet high.
The pile should then be covered with a layer of hay or sheet plastic.
This will help conserve moisture in the heat or minimize leaching
of the nutrients in the rain.
The pile will quickly heat up to 150 degrees and begin to shrink
in size to about three and a half feet high. Turn the pile over,
putting the outside material into the middle, in three weeks and
again at six weeks, moistening if necessary. The pile will be ready
to use in about three months.
One of the signs of a properly made compost pile is a fast temperature
rise, and it should maintain the heat for two weeks or more. This
heat should kill weed seeds and disease organisms. A good compost
heap should be almost odorlessif the odor is strong, you are
using too much nitrogen. Cut down the amount of manure next time.
If the odor is a real problem, you can take the pile apart and restack
it with more carbonous material.
I have found if I turn my pile only once or even not at all, I
still end up with usable compost. It just takes longer and is not
of as fine of quality.
The compost from a hot composting process is excellent for the
soil, adding humus and organic matter, feeding the worms and other
soil organisms. It is a good source of nitrogen, phosphorous and
potash, as well as many other necessary nutrients. It really can't
If you want compost in a hurry and have the time and energy, you
can create compost in two weeks. You will need to chop all of the
ingredients to small pieces; using a shredder is easiest. Make the
layered pile in the same way as hot compost, turn it every two days
for two weeks. At which time you have usable compost.
Compost can be made flat on the ground, with no retaining sides
at all. I have done it, and it works fine. It is more efficient,
however, if you have a bin or container of some sort. The kind I
like and use are bins with slated sides. They contain the compost,
let air in the sides and can be built out of recycled lumber (old
pallets work well).
Wire cages also work well and they have the advantage of being
easy to move. If you have close neighbors, you might want to try
composting in a pit in the ground, although this is hard to turn.
There are many commercial options available to choose from. Most
are some form of closed container that can be rotated to mix the
ingredients. These are particularly good options in close neighborhoods
where compost piles might be a nuisance. In cities that have rat
problems closed containers are the only way to go. It is recommended
that you add manure or a high nitrogen fertilizer every time you
add carbonous wastes.
Anaerobic composting takes place without oxygen present. This is
done in a closed container or the pile itself is covered tightly
with plastic. This method conserves the highest nutrient content
of all the composting methods.
The biggest problem with using compost is that there is never enough.
It can be used along with other fertilizing materials, such as manures
and commercial fertilizers such as bone meal, cottonseed meal and
blood meal. It can be used at any time during the growing season,
whenever it is ready, but compost is most effective in the spring
and during the growing season.
Compost can be used directly on the garden, spreading it as you
would manure, an inch to three inches thick and then work it into
the soil. A more economical use is to spread it around (called top
dressing) the individual plants, scratching it into the surface
of the soil or using it as a mulch. You can also work it into the
soil around plants being transplanted.
It is excellent for using in potting soil for container plants.
Sift it through a screen, like hardware wire, to get the material
fine enough. The rough compost that is left over is a good mulch.
Compost tea can be made by filling a bucket or barrel one half
full of compost and covering it with water. In a week or two, strain
the liquid and dilute it to the color of tea. This liquid is used
as a booster fertilizer for all growing plants, indoor and outdoor.
Mesophilic (mild-temperature) and cryophilic (low-temperature)
microorganisms can also be used to decompose wastes. It is not as
fast a process, because the cooler the temperature the slower the
breakdown. This method is much less work-intensive and time consuming
than hot composting, and is useful when just small amounts of organic
matter are available at a time.
The refuse heap is a simple heap of garden, yard and kitchen refuse
piled in an out-of-the-way place. It is added to as the refuse accumulates,
with no particular order to the placement of organic materials.
It does take a long time to decompose, from one to three years,
depending upon the materials used.
This is the least efficient method for nutrient conservation, however.
The resulting compost will be an excellent soil texturizer and good
for the garden soil, but it will not be a high nutrient fertilizer,
and will need to be supplemented with other fertilizers.
Trenching is the process of digging holes or trenches in the soil
and burying the materials. This is usually used for kitchen wastes,
not being practical for large amounts of garden wastes. It is a
good way to dispose of your kitchen garbage if you have problems
with marauding animals that raid the compost heap.
Trenching can be done any time of year. During the growing season
holes can be dug between rows and between plants, burying the garbage
six inches or deeper. The garbage may be blended in a blender with
a small amount of water to facilitate easier burying and quicker
breakdown. In the winter, when the ground is frozen, the garbage
can be stored in plastic buckets with tight-fitting lids and saved
until spring. It will get slurry and smelly, but this is only anaerobic
composting taking place.
Sheet composting is simply covering the ground with organic matter
and letting the soil organisms work on it right in place. Farmers
use this method to work organic matter into large areas of ground.
Often the organic matter is grown in place in the form of cover
crops. Small gardeners can make good use of this technique also.
Mulching, both the seasonal variety and permanent mulches, are
a form of sheet composting. Some gardeners cover their winter garden
with a blanket of leaves, and this is another form of sheet composting.
This is a good way to keep steadily building richer soil.
Sheet composting can be used to bring a new piece of ground into
production. Cover the area with a thick layer of hay, straw or whatever
material you have, lay it right over the weeds and grasses. Pile
it at least a foot thick, adding more as the material breaks down
throughout the season, add more. This will kill the weeds and produce
a soft, friable soil. Potatoes can be grown under the mulch in the
above ground method, and the ground put into production the first
Crops grown for the purpose of turning into the soil to improve
the texture and to build up organic matter is called green manuring.
This method is not used enough by home gardeners. It is one of the
best soil conditioners ever discovered. The cost is low, it takes
little time and the results are excellent.
Cover crops can be used before or after the main crop, spring,
summer or fall. If the garden is large enough, use it as a rotating
crop, or interplant between row crops. The main crop should be planted
a short time (two or three weeks) after turning the cover crop under
to take advantage of the nutrients given off by the decaying plant
matter. In sandy soil, leave the plant debris near the top; with
clay soil, dig it in deeper.
Some of the plants that work well for cover crops are:
- These can be turned under where they grow and make and excellent
- Being a legume, which fixes nitrogen, alfalfa is particularly
good. It is also deep rooted which breaks up subsoils and brings
up nutrients and trace minerals. It is a good spring and summer
crop, and makes an excellent rotation crop. However, if the plants
get too large, it can be difficult to dig under.
- Red clover
- This is also a legume, and a nitrogen fixer that is a good spring
crop. It can also be planted in mid-summer and left to winter
over before digging it in.
- Rye, annual
- This is a good winter crop, and can be seeded from late August
to October. It has a large root system and brings up potassium
from the subsoil.
- Also a good winter crop, it brings up potassium. Do not let
the crops get too large, or it will be difficult to turn under.
If it does get to tall, it may be helpful to mow it first.
Animal manures are one of the most readily available and inexpensive
forms of organic matter. They have been basic for centuries, and
are still one of the best soil conditioners. Any of the barnyard
manures are excellent--use whatever is available. The biggest problem
with manure are the weed seeds that pass through the animal, hence
the value of composting. Avoid cat or dog manures, as these can
contain organisms that are transmittable to humans.
Broadcast application is usual; spread it on the soil and dig or
rototill it in. If the manure is fresh, do this at least eight weeks
before planting time. Less time is needed for well aged manure.
Apply the manure three to five inches thick. Chicken manure can
be spread thinner, because it has a higher nitrogen content. To
be more precise:
- Barnyard manure (cow or horse) - 75 to 100# per 100 sq. feet
- Poultry manure - 35 to 50# per 100 sq. feet
If you do not have these quantities available, a small amount is
better than none. It acts as an inoculant by adding microorganisms,
and activates and stimulates the soil bacteria.
There are quite a number of organic fertilizers commercially available.
They provide little humus and are only a supplement, but can give
your soil an added boost.
- Dried blood and blood meal
- These are sources of readily available nitrogen. They should
be used sparingly, no more that 3# per 100 sq. feet. They are
between 12 and 15% nitrogen, 3% phosphorus, and up to 7% potassium.
- A good source of phosphorous, and is particularly good for flowering
bulbs. It raises the pH of the soil slightly. It is about 3% nitrogen,
20% phosphorous, and 24 to 30% calcium. The recommended usage
is 5# per 100 sq. feet.
- Cottonseed meal
- This will help acidify the soil, and contains 5% nitrogen, 3%
phosphorus, and 2% potassium. Recommended usage is 5# per 100
sq. feet, for trees apply 2 to 4 cups for every inch of trunk
size around the drip line.
- Kelp meal
- This contains natural growth hormones, so it must be used sparingly,
no more than 1# per 100 sq. feet. It is 1% nitrogen, 12% potassium
and 33% trace minerals, including more than 1% of calcium, chlorine
and sulfur and about 50 other trace minerals.
There are other additives available such as fish meals, leather
meals and soybean meals. There are also mineral supplements such
as rock phosphate and greensand that many authorities recommend.
The use of these depends on their availability and the needs of