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Southern Gardening: Give gardens gift of organic matter


Dr. Gary Bachman



Gardens and landscapes work really hard to give us so much beauty and bounty, so sometimes it's nice for gardeners to give something back to the earth. 


Fall is a really good time to build up your garden soil for next year. Probably the best gift you can give your garden is to amend its soil with organic matter. 


When you add organic matter to your gardens, you add back microorganisms and improve the life of the soil. Organic matter breaks up heavy clay soil and increases drainage; in sandy soils, it slows down drainage. And while it's not actually a fertilizer, organic matter does contain essential plant nutrients. 


So when you're looking into the gift of organic matter for the garden, just what are your options? 




Fall applications 


In Mississippi, a traditional choice has always been cottonseed meal. This soil amendment really boosts the organic matter in our garden soils. Raw or fresh cottonseed meal has a lot of green and brown materials, and it is best added to the garden after it has been composted. 


Mississippi is an agricultural state and has an ample supply of agricultural organic wastes, better known as animal manure. Manure is a good source of plant nutrients and is rich in nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium. When used fresh, it is considered "hot" and can harm plant roots and may spread harmful bacteria. I always recommend using only completely composted manures for the garden. 


However, you can apply fresh manure directly to the garden if you work it into the soil at least 90 days before planting. This step allows the manure time to compost in place so it becomes stabilized and beneficial for plant growth. Fall is the perfect time to apply fresh manure in preparation for planting next spring. 


Now, while compost is always a good gift for the garden, a really special and thoughtful gift is vermicompost. 




Black gold 


Earthworms produce vermicompost as they efficiently break down organic wastes, producing what really can be called "black gold." I'm an avid worm rancher, and I have several worm bins producing vermicompost for use in my garden and landscape. In fact, I earned my Ph.D. studying the effects of vermicompost on plant growth. 


You don't add vermicompost in nearly the same quantities as a normal composted material. Amend garden soil with small quantities of vermicompost to produce very healthy growing environments. Be aware that vermicompost is not a fertilizer and has limited plant nutrition, but it adds microorganisms and provides other intangible benefits that improve soil life and health. 


Coffee grounds are another organic garden amendment that has been getting a lot of attention, especially on Internet gardening sites. What could be easier than taking the morning coffee grounds and spreading them around the garden? Research has demonstrated that coffee grounds have an inhibitory effect on seed germination when used as topdressing. This feature makes them a great way to control weeds in the garden. 


If you don't drink as many cups of coffee as I do each day, many coffee shops generally will give you their spent grounds as a way to recycle these wastes. 


So don't worry about finding the perfect box and ribbon when giving the gift of organic matter to your garden. A bucket and shovel will do just fine.



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