Well-draining soil, peat moss and composting

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Late spring weather in Connecticut can be anything from nights in the mid-50s to daytime temps in the 90s. You never know. The past week it has been cool and rainy with the occasional few hours of sunshine. I grew a little concerned that my plants would drown. I was happy to discover that they survived with only a few beaten down by the torrential rains. And my soil seems to be draining well. That is always a big deal for gardeners. You can always water more but if your soil holds too much water the roots will literally drown, killing the plant.

When I lived in Texas and then Florida, I would buy 3 cubic feet bales of peat moss and incorporate that into my soil. Such a product is not available up here anywhere that I can find. Or maybe peat moss is not available anywhere. I remember reading something a few years ago poo pooing peat moss. Quick internet search and here is what I found.

In The Real Dirt on Peat Moss, guest ranter Ken Ruse stated:

Peat moss is mined, which involves scraping off the top layer of living sphagnum moss. The sphagnum peat bog above the mined product is a habitat for plants like sundews, butterwort and bog rosemary, as well as rare and endangered animals like dragonflies, frogs and birds, not to mention the living moss itself. Despite manufacturers’ claims that the bogs are easy to restore, the delicate community that inhabits the bog cannot be quickly re-established. Yes, peat moss is a renewable resource, but it can take hundreds to thousands of years to form.

On the flip side, the Canadian Peat Industry created this position paper: Sustainability: Canadian Horticultural Peat Industry Position Paper.

Let me first say that since it was approved by the Board of Directors of the Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss Association (CSPMA) it must be true. Right? If I have learned anything it is that if a corporation spins it, most likely it is a bunch of baloney. There might be a little bit of truth hidden within but the main goal of an industry is to make money and greed is typically the driving force.

They claim that “It is estimated that 89,910,000 hectares or 81% of Canada’s peatlands remain undisturbed.” Further, “Evidence based on the document, Canadian Peat Harvesting and the Environment, Second Edition, Issue Paper No. 2001-1, North American Wetlands Conservation Council, identifies that over 70 million tonnes of peat accumulate each year in Canada. Of this only 1.3 million tonnes of peat on average is harvested each year.”

You make up your own mind. The main reason you might not want to use peat moss is that it alters the soil pH. If the soil pH requires altering, peat moss might be a good choice (if your soil is too alkaline), and when I lived in Florida it was absolutely perfect for making sandy soils retain moisture and provide a more balanced pH. Up here in CT my soil pH is already spot on, so adding peat moss would not be a good choice.

Here is a great discussion on the use of peat moss including NOT using it as a mulch (it is reputedly a horrible mulch because it will actually repel water if it dries out — so claims ranter Ken Ruse — and again, will alter the pH of the soil).

Okay, back to MY garden and my wonderfully draining soil. This year I added composted horse manure and my own compost from the old goat house pile and the old chicken house pile. I am just getting compost from the compost pile I started last fall from mostly kitchen scraps and garden litter. I really want a leaf mould pile, so this fall I will be sure to have the boys haul leaves to a certain location for that purpose. Here is a short article on two methods of turning fall leaves into leaf mould. It is not complicated.

Compost pile started last fall.

Compost pile started last fall.

You can buy bags of compost from the store. I have not done so myself for a couple of reasons: 1) I don’t have the money to buy compost, and 2) I don’t know what is in that compost. Even if the bag says organic most of the time it is imported from another country. I just don’t trust organic standards from most other countries. And think about all of the fuel it took to haul those 40 lb. bags of compost to my tiny little state. I am surrounded by trees and forest litter. Why can’t I use that? Well, I actually did harvest some soil from the woods surrounding my yard. Yes, it is a lot of work. Darn it if gardening isn’t a lot of work. And if anyone has the excuse that it is TOO much work to haul soil it would be me since I am a weakling who can work in 15-30 minute increments before I need a rest. But I hauled compost and soil myself with a final contribution by my sons after I almost started crying and begging them to help me because I was SOOOOO tired. I really was very tired. They helped. I am thankful.

Just below the surface is gorgeous compost!  If I dig a few inches deeper, the pile is full of huge worms which means my pile is not hot or cooking but has become an outdoor worm compost pile.  Hey, whatever works.

Just below the surface is gorgeous compost! If I dig a few inches deeper, the pile is full of huge worms which means my pile is not hot or cooking but has become an outdoor worm compost pile. Hey, whatever works.

If you need to, please buy “organic” compost from the store. And why don’t you start a little compost pile of your own if you haven’t yet. Mine is still not built; is just a little hill behind the goat house. The pallets are still there waiting to be turned into a 2-bin compost area. If you have the money, just buy one of those cute little compost barrels that you can turn easily. Or try your hand at worm composting.

If you are not sure of your soil pH, please pick up a soil testing kit from your local extension service (in the US). Or you can use pH testing strips or a digital tester. Wiki-How has step-by-step instructions on testing your soil’s pH at home.

The soil test will tell you more than pH levels, though, so it is worth it to get this done (preaching to the choir — I have yet to do this). Soil tests check for potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus as well as pH levels. You can then amend the soil depending on the outcome. Adding compost each season is the best thing you can do to amend your soil, though. Over time the soil will become healthy and naturally balanced, so get going on that compost pile!

Compost area with my pallets waiting for someone to get inspired and turn them into a 2-bin compost unit.  On top of my pile are the two huge Aichi cabbage plants I pulled up yesterday to make room for tomatoes and peppers in my terraced garden.

Compost area with my pallets waiting for someone to get inspired and turn them into a 2-bin compost unit. On top of my pile are the two huge Aichi cabbage plants I pulled up yesterday to make room for tomatoes and peppers in my terraced garden.

How I started my compost pile (literally, just a pile on the ground).

I poured a layer of kitchen scraps on the ground and covered with soil from the area around the pile. More kitchen scraps, more soil. That is it. It was slower this way because it never got truly hot. Cooking your compost is a bit more work, but well worth it for quicker compost.

Here is a very long, detailed article on compost from the University of Illinois Extension Service.

Another great article with details on composting from Earth Easy.

Composting isn’t rocket science, but it is science. Honestly, if you put kitchen scraps, grass clippings and some leaves in a pile, throw in some soil and leave it, you will end up with compost. You can be as hands on as you want to be in the process or just leave it alone. I interacted with my pile a teensy bit, and I mean just making sure the fresh stuff was covered with some of the nearly finished compost and surrounding soil as I went along. I never “turned” my pile.

Happy gardening!

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