If you’re interested in gardening, landscaping, propagating succulents, or anything in between, you’re going to have to start with the basics: dirt.
Besides a nuisance under your fingernails and the occasional juicy gossip, what is dirt? What most people categorize as dirt is actually a number of different things: soil, humus, compost, and fertilizer to name a few of the most common. Here are the differences between these crucial types of plant food:
Soil is absolutely teeming with life and nutrients-- in fact, soil itself is considered a living thing! It’s usually dark and moist, as it must contain water in order to support the symbiotic food web thriving within. And if by “food web” you think I mean an entire ecosystem beneath your feet-- you’re right on the money. Within soil there are all sorts of microbes (such as bacteria and protozoa) as well as chemical reactions, earthworms, beetles and more. Decomposing material helps to feed the smaller organisms (microbes), which feed the larger worms and insects. The earthworms and insects help by both creating their own waste and by aerating the soil-- introducing oxygen into this mix is crucial to keep it healthy, like any living thing.
Sidebar on microbes: These decomposers are the same types of protozoa and (friendly) bacteria found in our guts. They help break down nutrients to help us digest our food and absorb nutrients-- and they help plants do the same.
While not technically dirt or soil, humus is the organic material within soil that helps feed the surrounding plants. It is the byproduct of the microorganisms, like protozoa, after they break down the organic structures like leaves. Humus is extremely dense in nutrients and will help your plants eat well and thrive! Humus can be artificially created with a well-crafted compost pile.
Which brings us to compost! Want good soil and humus? You don’t have to wait for the leaves in your yard to decompose into your garden-- you can start a compost pile now with the food remnants in your kitchen, some plant trimmings, and some good ol’ TLC. Compost piles begin as decomposing organic and natural material, think banana peels, eggshells, potato skins, etc. With sufficient water, oxygen, and organic matter, your compost pile will start churning out nutrient-rich humus in no time. Further along in this article, we’ll offer step-by-step instructions on how to start and maintain your own compost pile.
So where does fertilizer come in to all this, you ask? Many familiar brand name fertilizers are largely synthetic, and therefore are not always the best option for an organic garden. While compost enriches the soil, these synthetic fertilizers are designed to feed the plants directly; they don’t do much for the soil. Fertilizer can be helpful for specific problems or deficiencies your plants are experiencing, but they have strong effects on gardens and too much of them can result in more harm than good. You can think of it this way: compost is like a healthy, nutritious, varied diet, whereas fertilizer is like a dietary supplement. If you are calcium or iron deficient, you can take a supplement to correct this, but remember a healthy diet is still of utmost importance.
However, it’s possible to purchase or make your own organic fertilizers out of nutrient-rich, natural materials. Finely ground egg shells or coffee grounds, for example, can be added to your garden soil. Fish and kelp emulsion provide a natural source of essential minerals and also increase microbial activity. They will also treat specific deficiencies, but they will do this by enriching the soil.
For those of you still wondering, there is still such a thing as dirt that is not soil or compost. Though the definition is still sometimes disputed, the generally agreed upon meaning of dirt is the lifeless version of soil. This means that it is devoid of all aforementioned microbes, organisms, insects, and moisture-- due to these absences, it’s also typically lighter in color and more crumbly or sandy and it has little to offer surrounding plants besides a place to rest their roots.
DIY Composting Pile
So-- after that crash course, if you’re looking to get some humus in your soil to avoid leaning too heavily on fertilizer, here’s your next step: start your own compost pile.
Yes, this essentially entails keeping a pile of organic waste in your yard, but there are a few more nuances to it than that. Here are our steps to composting:
Choose a compost bin. This can be anything from a garbage bin to a large wooden box, but we recommend something that can offer good airflow, as introducing oxygen to the pile is important. If possible, a raised container is best; this will make harvesting the final product easier.
Choose a location. Keep in mind that mild temperatures are best for a compost pile. Keeping it warm is ideal, but if it reaches temperatures that are too high, the microorganisms within it will die. You might consider putting it underneath a deciduous tree; in the summer, the leaves will keep the compost pile cool enough, and in the winter the leaves will be shed, allowing more sunlight on the pile.
Add the ingredients. To create the perfectly-balanced compost pile, it’s important to maintain appropriate levels of both carbon and nitrogen. Your carbon will come from brown ingredients, typically long-dead and gone. Some examples of carbon-heavy additives are dried leaves, bark, and dead plants. The nitrogen levels will be boosted by greener ingredients, such as flowers, egg shells, and unripe banana peels.
Things that are generally good to compost: coffee grounds, plants, fruit peels and remnants, vegetables, grass clippings, straw, newspaper, sawdust, tea bags.
Things to avoid in your compost pile: charcoal or charcoal ash, dairy, fats and grease, animal bones or meat, pet droppings, yard clippings treated with pesticides.
Get the full list here!
Maintain your compost bin. It’s best to continue attending to your compost pile, turning it with a shovel or pitchfork to help aerate the contents. Remember whenever you add greens to also balance it out with some browns. This means that if you add dried yard clippings to the pile, top it with some green, fresh kitchen scraps as well.
Harvest your compost and use it! Depending on how you set up your compost pile and which container you choose, harvesting can look different. It’s easiest to harvest if you choose a raised compost bin. If you use open netting or chicken wire for the bottom of your container, the compost will naturally fall through the openings when it’s broken down and ready to use. You know it’s ready when it is dark, moist, and smells earthy. If there are identifiable ingredients in your finished compost (such as apple cores or egg shells), you can toss them back on the top of the pile to continue decomposing. However, an eggshell here and there on your grass won’t hurt!