Thursday 23 November 2017

Organic matter for nerds

Preserve your soil organic matter
My old brussels sprout stalks are fed to Cathi's sheep
I take a frivolous attitude today and my post might be even more disjointed and lacking direction than usual. Never-the-less I hope it will contain some significant content and might serve to guide you to my more serious posts about organic matter - many gardener’s holy grail.
Today I will reveal my obsessive nature in conserving this valuable gardening resource. It might therefore surprise you that none of my gardens contain a proper compost heap although on a good day I admit to a temporary pile. I sometimes suspect that some gardener’s raison d’ĂȘtre is to wallow in the joy of making the stuff. In another life I might be one of them. What really gets me is those gardeners that compost their waste and never get round to using the sweet smelling manna.

‘Organic’ is a hugely abused word. You might have noticed that all plants and animals are a completely organic tribute to evolution and yet when you buy them they tell you that some foods, flowers and vegetables are more organic than others and sell them at inflated prices. I spend no little time removing them from my trolly. This is only exceeded by filtering out the ‘fat free’.

When Lady Eve Balfour the much loved founder of the organic movement farmed nearly a century ago one of her missions was to persuade farmers that organic matter should  be recycled on the farm. This involved having both animals and plants. Not usually an option available to gardeners - who would have obtained manure from local supplies.
In our modern society an equivalent option is organic recycling. I tend to be disparaging about the green bin. I rarely use mine. Never-the-less despite my constant harping, the ensuing so called compost does have some value. Less to the soil and more to the benefits of avoiding ‘land fill disposal’ . 
What I argue today is that like Eve Balfour we can recycle within our own garden. Easy for me with an acre. Less so on the average small plot.

Lady B would have had plenty of FYM which is the very best soil improver. Unfortunately it brings weed seed into the garden and sadly these days can be contaminated with herbicide
The idea has grown that gardeners need to purchase organic matter from outside resources in order to maintain their own soil fertility. The sources of some such resources are environmentally dubious.
I maintain that the belief that is necessary to buy in manures and bulky organic matter is nonsense. It might be a crutch to rapid soil transformation, it might enable the use of pretty mulches (mea culpa), and it does contribute to replacing organic matter that the gardener has removed or destroyed. I cringe at all the goodness that goes in the green bin and wince when I see organic matter being oxidised away by unnecessary soil cultivation.
The thing that goes unrecognised is that the photosynthesis of your own plants is more than enough to create all the organic matter needed to produce a wonderful soil. As long as you don’t kick nature in the face and squander.

Benefits of organic matter
It is beyond the scope of today’s offering to detail all the wonderful things organic matter does for the soil. In fact without it it would not be soil. Here is a brief summary

1. In numerous ways it directly and indirectly improves soil structure with all the attendant benefits of aeration, drainage, water retention and resistance to erosion

2. It is part of the substance of the soil in various forms such as decaying organic matter, glomalin and humus - and not least living organisms themselves!

There will be more mycorrhiza and consequently more glomalin if you do not dig

3. The mineral content released when organic matter decays is a source of nutrients - particularly nitrogen which can leach away if in inorganic form.

4. Not only is organic matter made up of nutrients, its surface electrostatic charge holds nutrients which are freely available to plants.

How you might  conserve and recycle organic matter in the garden
Enough of the lecturer in me, more of the lengths I go to to retain organic matter. You might conclude that I am obsessive, stupid, misguided, lazy, unhygienic, untidy and inefficient. At my age I don’t really care.

1. Don’t destroy organic matter by excessive cultivaton. 

2. Don’t throw away soil!

3. Return all the organic matter you grow to the land. For many gardeners some or most of this process will be via a compost heap

Most snails prefer to rasp up decaying organic matter rather than your plants 
4. It is a moot point whether direct recycling of fresh organic matter is better for the soil than adding decayed matter from a compost heap albeit compost is much tidier. I do not believe fresh organic matter encourages pest and disease; sometimes quite the reverse and my own slug and snail damage is far less than most people’s.

Is decay on the surface better than compost? It's not as tidy
It was a bridge too far for my friend Rowena when in a previous post I mentioned I scatter all my vegetable remains on my veg garden. Indeed I top, tail, clean or pod my vegetables in situ. Less acceptable in a small garden. Rowena I understand - and Harry’s pictures of his worm bin were lovely.

Rowena prefers the mess to be in the bin
I think myself a little dotty when I walk a long way from the kitchen to scatter a handful of apple or orange peelings! Any advantage of such small quantities is immeasurably small; it’s the exercise and feel good factor that keeps me going!  I can’t bare washed soil from the carrots to go down the sink!

It's not really me
5. I personally have less organic matter that might be composted than most gardeners do. My lawn mowings are not boxed away. Not only is my lawn greener, the worms ingest them and redistribute the organic matter to my borders. All my weeds are tackled by spraying or hoeing or hand weeding when they are small and therefore can be left on the surface to desiccate and decay. Visitors are horrified when I pull out a weed and chuck it down.
Most of my Autumn leaves are left where they fall or if on my lawn are shredded by my mower. Sometimes leaves may be swept up and used as a mulch elsewhere in my garden.

6. More than most folk I do have lots of herbaceous tops in Autumn. Herbaceous perennials are my passion and in particular large ones. Such vegetation by Autumn is low in nitrogen and slow to decay. My solutions vary with place, season and whim.

My Lobelia tupa is tall and straggly and this year has already been cut down
In my wild gardens I use my hedge trimmer to shred herbaceous tops in situ or just leave them alone and let nature take her course. At home I might shred them more tightly to leave as a mulch. The tall plants are a headache and I have variously buried them when creating raised borders, left them in a discrete pile somewhere out of the way or (more rarely) burned them in situ in such way as to create beneficial char. Not being mechanically minded I do not have a shredder but such an implement can be used to make a great mulch.
My more sturdy herbaceous tops are left in situ as long as seems sensible to provide insect habitat and to protect, insulate and fertilise the soil. Autumn vegetation by springtime is much easier to handle. 

All this potential 'humus'
Lyndi's field six months after spraying
6. I have written about several of my projects such as Lyndi’s field and Cathi’s verge where I have eliminated perennial weeds by spraying with glyphosate and planting without any soil cultivation. No organic matter was taken away. I shudder when I see gardeners stripping organic matter to make new garden features. All the goodness, organic matter and fertile soil is retained when you spray and their is no loss to oxidation by stirring the soil. Users of glyphosate have fertile biologically rich soils.

My charcoal will conserve carbon for a very long time
7. My garden generates a lot of woody prunings. I burn them. Not exactly ecologically sound but I do douse the burning embers of my very hot fire to make charcoal. In doing so I make this ‘everlasting’ bulky soil improver and perhaps halve the carbon dioxide I would otherwise generate.
There have been occasions where I have buried woody prunings when for instance I have wanted to raise soil level. It serves as a soil improver for several years.

They bury woody prunings at Funchal  botanic garden
At Blandy their leaves and woody pruning are composted in the ground 
8. On the subject of burial after thirty years of burying great wads of newspaper I have now desisted on grounds of impending senility and finding suitable holes. Their considerable soil water holding benefits continue for several decades.

Two month's supply of the Times. It will be about a  foot down and will retain winter wet
9. I make my own soil or soil/charcoal potting composts. I shamelessly reuse them and turn any liverwort and pearlwort to the bottom of pots and trays. Only rarely does my old potting compost again enrich the ground. My point is that it is never  wasted.
As I read through this list I see I have descended into writing in the ‘first person’ Perhaps just as well as you will find that some of my eccentricities are unsuitable for you.

Links to further reading

I was alerted to research that nitrogen fertiliser did NOT speed up composting

Herbicide contamination of manure

Harry Kennedy's worm bin

I buried newspaper

Garden eccentric Tony Cuthbert made a very long list of things that can be composted

Tony didn't think of this one

....diamond dove droppings  are rather small....wonder if Cuthbert thought of hair clippings....


  1. We have been known to bury stuff such vegetable plant waste especially old pea and bean vines, outer leaves of cabbages etc and let it rot over winter. Next season you wouldn’t know it had been there

    1. Yes, when our students dug their plots (!) the digging trench was filled with all those things

  2. Hi Roger - old cooking oil? Just checked on my book list and it is there; "You can use cooked food residues too, such as bread, cheese, cooking oil, lard; mayonnaise; meat, milk, pea nut butter, salad cream, salad dressing; sour cream, but it probably be best to put this material in worm bins that can be sealed or mix them thoroughly with woody chippings before composting." It's not on the blog site though, however I have 43 sources of organic matter in my book but only 29 on the blog site! Hope you have a wonderful Christmas.

  3. Good to hear from you Anthony. Sounds as if your book might make a good Christmas present.

  4. We always use to dig a trench where the runner beans would be planted which was filled with veg waste. Works well for sweetpeas too.

    1. And some people use newspaper in the same way - but it only works if it has been soaked or in place all winter!


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