The Dirt on Roots: Compost Magic

By Michael Leach

More than 50 springs have passed since I began gardening but planting seeds remains my favorite part of the process.

Science says germination results from the right combination of light, temperature, moisture, soil conditions and time. I don’t know what you think, but to me, it’s mostly magic. Cover the seeds with soil, water, wait and watch for the tiny green shoots as fragile, persistent and tough as life itself.

You can enhance the “magic” with materials almost as bizarre as “eye of newt and toe of frog.” Coffee grounds, shredded newspaper, rotted barnyard manure, grass clippings, chopped leaves, vegetable peelings and garden soil are part of my “potion” for making compost. Not only am I “upcycling” cast-offs, such materials are readily available — unlike frog toes.

Compost boosts the countless legions of beneficial soil-borne microorganisms and nudges clay or sandy soil closer to that ideal combination of moisture retentive and free draining.

Before planting in the vegetable garden, I spread an inch or two layer of compost over the site and till it in with a hoe. Perennial and shrub beds and borders are blanketed each fall under a layer of chopped leaves that invariably include grass clippings. This is what I consider horizontal composting. By early the next summer, earth worms and other soil dwellers will have transformed the leaves into organic matter and mixed it into the soil. Over the years I’ve gotten closer to having that ideal mix.  

Without intervention, however, soil returns to its original state. Clay soil becomes a place where tiny roots, only a few cells thick, can’t penetrate. Sandy soil dries out long before those mysterious forces trigger germination. Even if shoots appear, little in the way of  water and nutrients will be found to nourish and sustain life.

So avoid the frustration. Take advantage of a little compost magic to help the roots along and ensure lush foliage and fruits.

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