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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener, Building Your Soil

Updated on January 26, 2015

My Garden, I do OK, I Guess...


Bones in the soil.

I previously introduced the idea that adding charcoal back into the soils is a good idea and that in traditional camp fires or food fires, bones are often left to roast and are later buried.

Bone meal is very good for soils. It is crushed and ground bone and used in organic gardening and is generally 4% nitrogen, 12% phosphorus. Ratios change according to what kind of bone and how it is treated. Obviously it has lot of calcium and some magnesium and iron as well.

But here we are talking about bones, burned in a fire or not, simply bones buried in the soils.

Thinks about the structure of the bone, with the marrow being a structure with spaces to hold things. Things like water and soils and nutrients, and when the water is used by the surrounding soils, it vcarries with it a little bit of nutrient.

Again, read the section just before this one and think about native cultures around the world before we started throwing everything into the dump. Where did the boned go? Into the soil. Where those soils rich with nutrient? Why, yes, they were. So, again here we are returning to practices we have not used for some time to benefit the soils in our gardens.

Calcium sand?

If you have boys, you may recall that they like lizards. In lizard keeping there is a product I don’t recommend called calcium sand.

The idea is to create a substance that would help lizards with their mineral intake as they ingest sand while eating the bugs crawling around on it, a natural even in the life of a lizard.

And you wonder why women don’t tend to like lizards.

Well, it turns out that calcium sand is mostly calcium carbonate and animals simply don’t use much calcium carbonate, but plants do!

My son decided late in high school to stop breeding and raising his carrot tail Geckos, and, like most kids, having not listened to his parent, had some left over calcium sand.

Finding this abandoned outside, I used it decoratively on my plants with great success. It made a nice white surface, dare I say, almost a matting, around plants in pots and slowly breaks down into the soil adding calcium and carbonate to the water and then to the soil.

Charcoal in the soil

Charcoal waste is a valuable adjunct to the garden soils which allows for nutrient storage, moisture retention, and it absorbs smells that are otherwise unpleasant from anaerobic fermentation.

The Terra Preta soils of the Amazon forest areas were darkened by the addition of charcoals. These man made, or at lease man altered soils contained a myriad of ingredients added to them which improved their mineral content, and generally improved the soils of the people who lived there.

We can’t speculate if they understood what they were creating. People speculate both directions on this. The people were not stupid by any means, but there is simply no evidence on way or the other telling us if the creation of these blackened soils was intentional. But you can create blacked soils intentionally by adding charcoals and ashes back into your soils.

Used like this the modern term is bio-char and it is composed of everything one would burn in a fire.

Think about a native tribe in any location, who used fire for cooking and/or warmth, and sometimes to clear a forested area for planting later. What is the range of things that happen to the plants being burned? Some moist plants don’t burn well, some ends of logs don’t burn, wood burns and turns to ash (potassium carbonate, other minerals) some turns into charcoal which does not fully oxidize and is left in the fire when cooled off. Animal parts remain after being cooked, bones are thrown into the fire. Fire pits are covered up by things. Water, mud, leaves, human waste, animal waste, and so forth.

So what happens to the charcoal? It very slowly breaks down in the soil and the remnants can be seen for thousands of years.

So, when you are cleaning out your fireplace and have charcoal left over, or, if you have a fire pit, do not throw out the burned materials, rather add them to your soils.

How much is enough?

How much do you have? Unless you are close to something large that burned, you are not likely to reach the recommended amounts for soils. In Terra Preta Magic Soils of the Amazon, Printed in ACRES USA, February 2007 (V37, No.2) author Allan Balliett states that tests have shown 20-30% by weight produce the best results.

Like the soils we described in the introduction, life happens, and what happens to soils when life happens enriches the soils when the organic matter is reused and reintroduced to the soils.

The question is, should we make great efforts to add 20-30% charcoal to our soils?

Probably not, but adding 20-30% total organic matter to a soils mix makes it look a lot like a professionally mixed garden soil you buy in the store, so, why do we haul off all our waste and then go to the nursery to buy ingredients to add to the soils when we have many of them cycling through our houses every day?

Clay Soil

Sometimes you just have to deal with clay soils. Breaking up clay is done using several items you may have around the house. One I guarantee you have is soap. Hopefully it is a good organic soap without scents in it but frankly, any soap will do.

Just dilute some soap into a spray bottle and spray in on the plants and soil. Do this every few weeks. If you know there is a good storm on the way, use a stronger mixture which will wash into the soil during the rain. This breaks up clay very efficiently and puts, you guessed it, good old carbon into the soil.

When you visit the nursery, pick up some gypsum and spread it around the yard. Even if you don’t have clay soils, adding gypsum is one of the best things you can do for your soil. But the sulfates attach to clay particles and prevent them from clumping together.

If you can reach the clay soils you can dig into or past them. If so these ideas work directly, but also you can dig holes for kitchen and house waste then bury this with a mixture of soils. When the worms get into this they will also help break up the clay by carrying worm castings into the trough the holes they use to move in and out of the waste heap.

This is a case where the more food waste you have to dump in and the more items like paper, paper towels, napkins, and so forth, items with a lot of carbon, help enormously. The worms carry this and it breaks down into humates and minerals that help break up the soils.

Hole digging is effective for smaller areas, Remember, the clays are helpful in keeping moisture in the soils, so don’t simply replace them unless you have a drainage problem. Put them back, with lighter soils, on top of the waste, or better, layer the waste with soils.

Come back in 6 months and check the hole. Not only will the soils have shrunk down and turned dark, but the hole is easy to use over again and you will note it is easy to dig out the sides.

In fact, if you have a good size area that has heavy soils, you can use this to prepare the holes for plantings later. Be sure to dig a square hole into the clay before planting anything or the clay will cause the roots to go round and round until you have a planted plant that is root bound. I have actually seen people plant in clay soils with round holes and the root never penetrated the soils outside the hole, but circled around until they were out of room and forced the plant up out of the ground killing the plant. You could lift the plant out of the ground as if it were a pot without disturbing the roots.

Coffee, Tea, or Milk?

She asked the worms...

Coffee, Tea, or Milk?

Coffee grounds, tea, and milk make for a wonderful mulch or soil additives, they acidify the ground which most locations need, and worms love their morning snacks, or, in the case of night crawlers, love to stay out late for coffee.

Milk has minerals, but it also has proteins which many soil organisms can take in directly, but which fungi and bacteria break down into a slow release nitrogen.

Mile can also be sprayed onto plants to directly feed the foliage, as can both coffee and tea, but I prefer the organic mass in the soils to feed the very bottom of the food chain.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb


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