I’ve received some emails over the past few months that have indicated a lack of understanding of what changes poor soil to good soil, and about what compost is and isn’t.
One reader, a relatively new gardener, does a lot of searching for information about what he should do.
Not wanting to double-dig his heavy clay soil, he searched for information that would possibly back up his decision, and found an article that he interpreted as showing “that loosening the subsoil led to less need for watering.”
So he wrote and said he decided to double-dig rather than to “use supplemental water forever.”
I read the article. The experiments mentioned in the article were made over a 4 year period on sandy loam soil in conjunction with deep incorporation of “nutrients” which in conventional agriculture is chemical fertilizer.
One cannot state that merely loosening clay soil will decrease use of supplemental water.
When Does the Benefit of Not Watering or Using Less Water Come?
The 3 keys to success in gardening (see related posts at the end) are synergistic; meaning they work together for a greater result than just using one key. After you loosen soil deeply, add lots of organic materials, and mulch — THEN your soil will begin to change AND THAT’S where you will get the benefit of not having to water or at least being able to water less.
My first garden was in heavy yellow clay soil. I started improving it right away using the 3 keys. I saw results the first year, but it got better and better every year.
Improved clay soil will be more dense than improved sandy soil, but it’s much better at holding nutrients and makes great soil for growing a garden.
As far as watering, I’ve never watered my garden, because I have no means to do so. But I’ve always had a successful garden.
On with My Reader’s Story
My reader did the double digging and wrote saying that the area was not much higher than ground level. As it turns out he added a – as in one bag – of organic compost.
I thought perhaps it was the best he could do at the time.
Obviously he was not pleased at the results. He wrote later and said,
“It seems like the soil didn’t mix. — the two (red clay and compost) didn’t seem to unify.”
As I’ve mentioned in many posts, it’s next to impossible to tell what kind of compost you get when you buy it. But let’s assume for a minute that this new gardener had added one bag of the best compost in the world to his newly dug clay ground. Would the results have been any different?
Compost is Organic Matter, But Organic MATERIAL is Needed
In giving this a lot of thought for sometime, I realized that part of the problem is that yes, compost is organic matter — BUT it is not the organic MATERIAL that you want to add to soil, especially heavy clay soil to “change” it into something suitable for gardening. And I’ve never seen any article, including my own articles, that come right out and say it that way.
How I Know
The organic materials that changed my clay soil to a friable dark soil with lots or organic matter was straw, leaves, pine tags, kitchen scraps, and lots of it.
Compost is organic material that has already decomposed and stabilized. In other words – it’s not really changing any more. (It is organic matter; also referred to as humus.) Although compost can have soil life in it, if you want to create “good” soil from heavy clay, you need organic MATERIALS that have not yet decomposed. They bring more soil life; the kind that will “mix” or “unify” the organic materials with the soil.
Does it happen instantly? No.
The very best time to do this is in the fall so that the soil life will have time to work on the clay (or any soil) over a period of months before planting in the spring. But the main thing is to do it.
Two Common Recommendations
It’s common to see the recommendation on various sites to bring in a load of compost and incorporate it into the soil and use that to start your garden. Whether the result are acceptable or not, will depend on what the gardener knows and what he or she finds acceptable.
Another common recommendation is to buy topsoil. There are no standards, so just about anything can be sold with the name “topsoil”. But if you know and trust the source, you might get lucky.
Will these two common recommendations guarantee you a good garden?
If you’ve used these recommendations in your own garden, keep in mind that you must, at the very least use the second and third key to success if you want better results.
- Continually (each year) add organic materials to the soil to improve it and keep soil life active and working on your behalf.
In Closing – Another reader writes:
“– I had a wonderful garden in the Harrisonburg area and now that we’ve moved to Lynchburg, it seems like the soil is a lot more dense and reddish. Is the best way to simply keep adding compost to it and eventually it will be more like the soil I loved in the Shenandoah Valley?”
There are many benefits to compost and it certainly won’t hurt to add compost.
Although you may not have the exact same soil that you had in Harrisonburg, if you follow my recommendations (the 3 keys) and you add organic MATERIALS (as explained above) you’ll end up with a soil that you love just about as much as your soil at your previous garden.
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