“Judging from the many word battles now being waged by the organic vs. chemical gardening advocates, it would seem that the gardening crisis of our generation had reached a point to demand serious attention,” wrote E. M. Hunt in a 1946 article on the “Fertilizer Feud” in Minnesota Horticulturist. Questions about how best to be gardening organically still surface among hort society members. Here are a few things we’ve learned from the archives.
Chemical fertilizers provide a quick boost, but be careful. As Hunt pointed out, the nitrogen in commercial fertilizers can be taken up by plant roots as soon as it’s dissolved in water. Nitrogen is the chemical (in soil and elsewhere) the encourages leaf and plant growth. But, too much nitrogen can cause plants to grow too fast and too spindly. Follow directions, if you use a commercial fertilizer, and remember than many gardeners apply them at half doses.
Organic matter is essential. If you want to improve the tilth and texture of your soil, increase its ability to hold water and add those crucial air pockets, you need to add organic matter, usually in the form of compost, write C.O. Rost of the U of M’s division of soils in the 1950s. While Rost advocated for the use of some chemical fertilzers, the “benefits of organic matter in the soil are too important to neglect.”
Improve your soil with leaves. One of the mantras of some gardeners recently has been to “leave the leaves.” Louisa Sargent, biology professor at Grinnell College, was a proponent of gardening organically and using leaves as a soil conditioner way back in 1951, when she wrote an article on her experiments using leaves as her primary fertilizer. Called “An Organic Gardener Speaks,” Sargent described how the soil in her garden was composed of “a heavy conglomeration of clay, refuse, broken glass and scrapings from here and there.” It was almost impossible to dig in and nothing grew well. She tried adding manure, but she couldn’t get enough to use on the entire yard. However, she lived near the college campus and a park and began bringing in the leaves from both. She let them sit through the winter, then applied the wet masses to her gardens and paths, where earthworms worked the organic matter into the soil. The results of gardening organically: “After two seasons, parts of my garden are miraculously transformed,” she wrote. “The soil is mellow, mealy, fluffy, moisture-retentive and manageable.”
Moisture levels are key in composting. In a 2004 article on compost, Terry Yockey suggest you keep your compost about as damp as “a well-wrung sponge.” To keep the air circulating in the pile and keep the pile cooking, turn it with a pitch fork occasionally.
Make sure your pile is big enough. Compost materials (leaves, plants, coffee grounds, etc.) will decompose eventually no matter what you do with your pile. But for best results make a compost pile that is at least 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet. It can be larger, but that minimum size is enough for the pile to remain active. Here are more tips from Terry on creating a compost pile.