Free Garden Soil Improvements

With a bit of creativity, an open mind, and perhaps a bit of extra work, you can obtain soil amendments for free.

Are you planning a new garden bed or seeking to improve an existing one? Unless you're extremely lucky, most garden soils can benefit from the addition of soil amendments to promote adequate drainage or water retention, aerate the soil, and provide nutrients for plants to thrive. Usually, your first stop for these amendments would be the garden center, but purchasing soil amendments can get expensive. There are several ways you can improve your garden for free.

The best, and most often overlooked source of soil amendments comes from your trash. Start a compost pile! Anything organic, without toxic chemicals added, that will decompose in a short time belongs in the pile. Include yard waste and kitchen scraps such as vegetable and fruit peels, but avoid adding animal products or oils as these will create odors and attract pests. Eggshells may be added, but rinse them first. Turn the compost occasionally, and when the texture resembles dirt, spread it on the garden and mix it in.

When you mow the lawn, don't bag up the clippings and haul them to the curb! Let them dry in the sun and then mix them into the garden soil or use them as mulch. Don't add them when they're fresh because they're high in nitrogen and will burn the plants. Autumn leaves are also a great amendment. Some communities collect these leaves and recycle them as mulch. You can do this yourself too: leaf shredders are inexpensive and well worth the price, as they make fall cleanup much easier. Simply vacuum the leaves into the shredder and empty the bag on your garden using the resulting mulch to protect tender perennials against winter frosts. In the spring, till the leaves into the soil. Even if they haven't decomposed, they'll help aerate the soil so the plants' root systems can thrive. Some leaves are better than others, though; the leaves of the black walnut should be avoided as they contain a toxin that will retard plants' growth.

Manure is probably the best soil amendment available. It contains nutrients, organic material, and improves the texture of the garden soil. Human waste should not be used because it may spread disease. Dog or cat feces may be used, but only in ornamental gardens and never for food crops. Horses, cows, chickens, turkeys, and bats are good sources of manure. But unless you're lucky enough to have your own cow, horse, or chicken roost, how do you obtain it? You could buy it from the garden store, or take a trip out to the country to visit a farm. Many farmers sell well-rotted manure for agricultural or garden use; others will let you haul it away for free. It never hurts to ask! Wear old clothes, protect your car or truck with layers of plastic, bring sturdy containers, and provide your own shovel or pitchfork.

When using manure, it's best to let it "age" first because fresh manure is very rich in nitrogen and will burn plants. It also often contains seeds that will germinate and add to your weeding chores. If all you can obtain is fresh manure and you don't want to leave a smelly pile of it in the corner of your yard for awhile, spread it in the autumn after the garden is done. Only add aged manure in the spring or autumn, never in the summer.

Before adding to the soil, it's best to test the pH level. This is a measure of acidity/alkalinity; most plants thrive in a neutral soil with a pH of 6.0 to 7.0. Some, however, have other requirements. Azaleas and blueberries, for example, do better in a more acidic soil. Asparagus is better in alkaline soil. Depending on your location, your soil may naturally tend toward one or the other extreme, and soil amendments can bring it toward the neutral zone. Soil tests can be purchased in garden stores, or your county extension service can test it for you.

One example of a soil amendment that has a dramatic effect on the pH level is ashes. The ashes from your fireplace or charcoal grill can be a great addition to a garden, as long as you're growing plants that do okay in alkaline soil. Tree leaves and pine needles, on the other hand, raise the acidity of the soil. But if you add a wide variety of soil amendments in fairly equal quantities to soil that's already been tested to be in the neutral range, chances are you won't have to worry.

Improving your garden soil so that your plants can thrive and reach their full potential doesn't have to cost a lot of money. With a bit of creativity, an open mind, and perhaps a bit of extra work, you can obtain amendments for free. In addition to helping your garden grow, many of these suggestions are an excellent way to improve the environment by reducing waste and using less space in the landfill. Give it a try; your plants will thank you.

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