Archive for soil

COMPOSTING YOUR WAY TO A BETTER GARDEN

MasGarTM5x7_w85[1]NewLSUAC-0214-CMYK-O

COMPOSTING YOUR WAY TO A BETTER GARDEN

By:  Emily Shirley, Advanced Master Gardener

Soil is the most precious resource in your garden.  Some have well-tended soil (from previous owners), while others, particularly those moving into new homes, inherit a rubble-filled mass.  However, any soil can be improved through time and effort.  For example, when the Master Gardeners began gardening in the Demonstration Garden a few years back, we were given use of the property that was formerly an old rodeo arena.  It was very compacted, and after just a few inches we hit red clay that had been hauled in for years and driven over with tractors.  By the time we finished amending the soil we were growing beautiful plants – vegetables and ornamentals.

If you have been around the gardening world very long, you have heard the terms “black gold”.  What we are referring to is composted material that is very precious in terms of gardening use – or compost.  Composting is the natural process that turns raw organic ingredients into humus – that earthy, dark crumbly, fully decomposed end product.  If you regard your soil as a living entity, you will see that essential plant nutrients are cycled by a microscopic army of inhabitants and larger worms, insects and grubs.  All these creatures need air, moisture and food.  Using manure, garden compost and other sources of organic matter is the key to sustaining this soil life and keeping the soil healthy.

It is always good to start by working with what you have – compost what your yard produces first, and import materials only when they are convenient and of special value to your composting.  Compostable materials from your kitchen, such as fruit and vegetable scraps, plus garden materials can easily be reused to cycle their nutrient value, carbon and nitrogen back into the soil to grow more food or plants.

To avoid waste from what you do not use in the kitchen, don’t throw it in the garbage, compost it!  Once you start saving your food scraps from the kitchen two things will happen.  You will simply be amazed at how much you have been throwing in the garbage that could have been used for composting.  And, you will never go back to throwing these things in the garbage again because you will soon realize how valuable these materials are for your gardening.  Most landscapes produce plenty of fallen leaves, grass clippings, and withered plants to toss in there.

This is a very simple process.  You need something for collecting your kitchen food waste to get started.  You can spend a lot of money for products that are sold for this purpose, or you can make it simple by having a simple five-gallon bucket with a lid, just outside your kitchen.  As you prepare food or clean out the refrigerator, just toss things into a small container and each evening empty that container into your larger bucket just outside the kitchen door.  Once you have enough in the outside container to throw out, you take the contents from your food scrap container to a compost pile.  You can even get creative and even make it even easier by having some trenches dug outdoors in an area you plan on gardening in at a later date and bury your food scraps in those.  Now, just let things sit in your compost pile a while and decompose and when it is ready, start using it.

So how do you know when your compost is ready to use for planting projects?

To evaluate your compost to determine if it is ready you can get very complicated, (that science thing again) or you can just use what you have – your eyes, nose and hands – to determine if it’s ready.  Visual inspection will reveal even color and consistency with a sprinkling of still-identifiable, undecomposed items, such as a peach pit or chunks of corn cob.  Your nose will detect an inoffensive, earthy smell with no sharp or sour odors.  To the touch, your finished compost will feel cool (no apparent heating), moist, and crumbly.  Once your compost meets these standards, let a few lettuce (or other) seeds pass final judgement.  Combine compost with an equal amount of potting soil and plant seeds in the mixture.  Sow the same kind of seeds in plain potting soil at the same time, and compare the progress of each planting.  If the seeds grow equally well in both, your compost is ready to roll; slower growth in the compost mixture means your compost needs more time to mature before you use it in planting projects.

Hints:

  •  Composting is not fast – you have to be patient and give it time. Slow compost is good compost.
  • Place a thick layer of newspaper (not the slick colored sheets) at the base of a curing compost pile to deter invasive tree roots.
  • Inadequate moisture is one of the most common reasons for compost to fail to make good progress.  Compost microorganisms need moisture.  You have to give your pile some moisture during these Louisiana hot days.  It is important to moisten ingredients as you add them to your pile, and to replenish moisture as you turn or aerate compost.
  • In an open heap, you don’t have to aerate, because the heap has plenty of exposed surface area, and will make its own air pockets as the materials shrink and turn into compost.  (Note:  I have a very large compost pile and I just use the tractor front-end loader to move it around occasionally.)
  • After a year or two of using compost In the garden every chance you get, you will discover a new pleasure in gardening.  You will notice that you can pull weeds more easily.
  • It is a good idea to only use your composting pail for just composting.  Don’t contaminate it with other things, for example, using your bucket to pick up behind the dog in the yard.

So how do you then actually use this compost once it is decomposed and ready?

  •  Treat every plant you grow to some form of compost.
  • Blanket beds as you renovate them between plantings.
  • Amend planting holes, or mix your best batches into homemade potting soil.
  • Use rough-textured, partially decomposed compost as mulch.
  • You can use it as a soil conditioner for all type of plants.
  • You can use your compose to mix with potting mix that you already have.
  • You can use it as a slow release fertilizer, gradually feeding plants over a long period of time.
  • You can use it for mulch for pots and gardens to protect plant roots from the sun and wind and to prevent erosion and reduce soil diseases.
  • (composting – continued)
  • You can use compost as a top dressing for lawns, to add nutrients and fill in gaps to encourage healthier grass roots and thatch.
  • Use it as an amendment to prove sandy and clay soil structure by binding soil particles together – helping aerate, retain moisture and nutrients.
  • Make a liquid “compost tea” fertilizer.
  • Compost mixed into the soil between plantings is the best way to keep the soil from becoming exhausted.
  • When you are ready to plant, mix in the compost along with organic fertilizer sufficient to meet the needs of the crop, and you are good to go.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Comments (1) »

GOOD HABITS IN THE GARDEN

NewLSUAC-0214-CMYK-OMasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

 

 

GOOD HABITS IN THE GARDEN

By Emily Shirley, Master Gardener

Bad habits are hard to break, and sometimes all it takes to break a bad habit or establish a new or good habit is to just give it some thought.  Here’s some food for thought:

Get in the habit of controlling weeds every chance you get.

Do not let weeds get out of hand before taking efforts to control them. Dealing with weeds is an unavoidable part of landscape upkeep. Yards with regular weed maintenance tend to have less severe weed problems.

Avoid creating a landscape that demands more time and maintenance than you can keep up and enjoy. Get in the habit of finding ways to reduce the maintenance you already have.

It’s important to design a landscape that only requires as much maintenance time and effort as you have to give. Remember lawn areas, large vegetable gardens and flowerbeds are high maintenance.  Consider letting some areas go native – plant native wildflowers and let that area be for a while.  Maybe you will need to mow it a couple of times a year instead of every week.

Make it a habit of seeking out only gardening information that is appropriate for southwest Louisiana.

I have a pretty large library and a lot of shelf space goes to the gardening books.  I try to focus on plants and gardening information on plants that will grow in the area where I live.  The Internet is full of gardening information, but much of it is not suitable for our area. We want to focus on what grows here and how to manage what we grow here.  For information on a wide variety of garden topics that is specifically prepared for Louisiana gardeners, check out the LSU AgCenter at http://www.lsuagcenter.com. Click on “Lawn & Garden” & “Get It Growing.”

Effectively use mulches in flowerbeds, vegetable gardens, around shrubs and other appropriate areas every chance you get. Good habit–replace as needed. Mulches — such as pine straw, leaves, dry grass clippings, ground bark and wood products — are our best, first line of defense in controlling weeds in beds. They also conserve soil moisture reducing watering, look attractive, and prevent soil compaction and moderate soil temperatures. There are few things we do as gardeners that are more beneficial than mulching.

Get the soil tested (good habit, at least every three years.) Getting your soil tested will help you make the best gardening decisions. Test results indicate what fertilizers are needed. And knowing the soil pH can help with plant selection. Instructions are inside the soil testing kit that you get from the AgCenter.

Attend as many gardening educational events as possible. You cannot get more local than attending educational events right in your state.  You can learn so much from just having conversations with gardeners at gardening events and listening to lectures from experts in the field of horticulture.  I so look forward to spring each year when I can start attending all these gardening events!

Visit the outstanding public gardens around the State, country, or the world. Always take a notebook and a camera to write down and take pictures of the things that you see that inspire you.  When they have labels by or on their plants, I take a close-up picture of the label, then a picture of the plant.  Besides the beauty of public gardens, they also can teach us many lessons about design and plant materials. We have so much to see in Louisiana!  And, I’ll toss this in as a reminder of those of you traveling abroad.  Always look up public gardens before you travel and make it a point of seeing some of the beautiful gardens of the world while on your trip.  I’ve been to Monet’s Garden in France twice and am going again this spring.  I just can’t get enough of it!

Grow something you can eat this year, and get in the habit of eating more clean food.  One of the goals of the Beauregard Master Gardeners is to teach people to grow food.  In this day and age of so many processed foods causing so many health (and weight) issues, it is even more important that we find a way to get back to eating good clean food.  Growing your own is the best way.  You don’t have to till acres of land in order to grow vegetables. You can grow just about every vegetable in a container.  If you are new to vegetable gardening, don’t worry – it needn’t be complicated.

Take better care of your garden tools. Those that know me know that I am a little obsessed about gardening tools.  I want three of each! I also like to see people take care of their tools.   I must admit, there are times when I fall behind and let bad habits slip up on me.  When I am really tired at the end of the day after being outside in the heat all day, I sometimes do not clean my tools before putting them away.  But I try to not go for months without cleaning and oiling them.  Good quality garden tools should last for many years. There are three important points: avoid rust-inducing moisture, keep them sharpened, and occasionally apply a coat of oil.  For shovels, just keep a pail of sand with some oil soaked in sitting in the tool shed.  When you are done with the shovel at the end of the day, stab it in the sand a few times to clean and oil at the same time.  The easier you make something, the more likely you will develop the habit of doing it.

Start a compost pile, or if you have one, take better care of it. Nothing beats biologically active homemade compost when doing bed preparation or putting together potting mixes. Composting is not complicated; it can involve nothing more than piling up grass clippings, leaves and other landscape waste in an out-of-the-way area and allowing it to naturally decay. Toss in those kitchen scraps of greens and vegetables that go bad in the refrigerator and “make the worms happy.”  Don’t forget to harvest it and use it as needed.

Leave a comment »

Results of a Successful French Drain

NewLSUAC-0214-CMYK-OMasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

 

Results of a Successful French Drain

By Beauregard Master Gardeners

A French drain system consisting of 4 inch perforated sleeved drain pipe was installed on the east end of the Beauregard Master Garden in DeRidder, Louisiana on October 27.  The depth varied from 8 inches to 20 inches as a sighted laser level for gravity drainage in a South direction.  Gravel was placed below and above the drain pipe along with a tight weave landscape fabric above a portion of the gravel fill.

1 fd

Before: Demonstration garden at 7:30 AM.

On November 23 an overnight flooding rain occurred.  Pictures were taken at 7:45 am and then at 4:30 pm for comparison.  Typically rain-water would keep this garden area flooded for several days.  Within 9 hours, the area around the French drain showed minimal surface water.  In other parts of the garden on the west end, water holding low areas were still flooded after the 9-hour lag.  The desired effect of the drain is demonstrated in the photographs.

2 fd

After: Demo garden at 4:30 PM of the same day. Photos: George Giltner

The project was necessary to prevent fertilizer leaching, water-logging of soils, fungal and bacterial infections of planted materials, anaerobic acidification, and volatilization of sulfur and nitrogen compounds.

 

 

Leave a comment »

Is your Garden Soil Safe for Vegetable Gardening?

NewLSUAC-0214-CMYK-O  MasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

 

Is your Garden Soil Safe for Vegetable Gardening?

By George Giltner, Adv. MG, Biology MS

Most of our gardens are safe and natural ecosystems, which grow wholesome, nutrient dense foods.  We work and handle the soil, enjoy the rich earth aroma, and appreciate the vital processes of living organisms that recycle nutrients, filter water, and produce our crops.

However, soils can be polluted just like water and air.  Lead, arsenic, and cadmium  are toxic heavy metals that are of concern.  Once these heavy metals are introduced into soil, they persist a very long time.  Knowing the history of the garden location can help to identify areas that are contaminated.  Examples of contamination from the past include arsenic treated lumber residues, some fertilizers, old orchard sites where lead arsenate pesticides were used, a gun range, lead bearing paint residues, and  even soil near roads in the time of leaded gasoline.

DSCF2499

Here are watermelons at the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden where George has various project. Photo by Jimmy Earl Cooley, MG’er.

Most common fertilizers are not a significant source of heavy metals.  Nitrogen and potassium fertilizers are generally free of toxic metal content, but phosphate fertilizers often contain cadmium depending on the mining site.  Excess phosphorus typically is “tied-up” with insoluble compounds like calcium phosphate, therefore it lingers in the soil for years.  Use soil tests to determine if additional phosphate amendments are needed.  Thus, avoiding unnecessary phosphorus fertilizer applications may prevent the undesirable cadmium additions, too.

Micronutrient fertilizers have been and are still being produced from recycled toxic materials.  “Ironite” has contained as much as 3600 ppm arsenic and 2900 ppm lead.  No federal standards for heavy metals in fertilizers exist.  Composition of fertilizers is in the control of the states.  However, Washington State does require testing for 9 heavy metals with results on the web.  Gardeners from other states use their postings to look up heavy metal concentrations in commercial fertilizers.

What are the negative effects of heavy metals on human health?  Children bear the greatest risk as the developing brain and IQ are especially vulnerable to lead.  Even the lowest detectable quantities are considered toxic to children.  Children’s behavior as “Rug Rats” with mouthing and crawling on floors, exposes them to greater quantities of dirt and dust. Chromosome damage, nerve damage, cancer, etc. are among other toxic effects of heavy metals on all of us.

Vegetables are not all equal in their ability to uptake heavy metals.  Some are concentrators and others are not.  Leafy greens like lettuce, and root crops like carrots will have more than fruits like tomatoes.  Some plants like water hyacinths are super concentrators that may have thousands of ppm of mercury from water sources.  Therefore it should not be used as compost material for soil.

How do you get your soil tested?  The LSU AgCenter Soil Lab can do an optional lab test for heavy metals for an additional $5.  Another reliable lab is TP&S Lab (956-383-0739) which will cost around $100.  Interpretation of results can be done with on-line research.  Common sense guidelines – “Less is better”.

Please note the first paragraph of this article, “Most gardens are safe-“.  This article is for awareness of heavy metals.  It is not meant to scare or deter in any manner from the joys of gardening.

 

 

Leave a comment »

Dinosaur Period Expanded Shale – for Gardens

LSUAC4C72-80px[1]                                                     MasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

Dinosaur Period Expanded Shale – for Gardens

By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, MS Biology

                 2014 expanded shale    2014 expanded shale 2

A garden soil recipe for success is to add a soil conditioner that originated from the Late Cretaceous Period, when the most famous mass extinction of dinosaurs occurred, 65 million years ago.  In this time period, Tyrannosaurus and Giganotosaurus roamed, and flowering plants began to flourish.  Fine grained sedimentary rocks from mud of clay and silt were laid down to form the Texas Midway Shale formation which is 10 -15 ft. underground in a pattern from Corsicana to Texarkana south to Laredo.

When shale from the above area is mined and exposed to 2000 deg C for 40 minutes, 65% of the silica makeup changes chemically as gases escape to form a porous lightweight rock, Expanded Shale.  It can absorb 38% of its weight in water for a water-wise soil amendment.  Also it will conservatively last for decades, unlike deteriorating vermiculite and decomposing peat moss.  Expanded shale is mostly an alumino-silicate that will not change the soil pH, is non-toxic and inert, and environmentally friendly.  It enhances plant growth and performance.  Applications include raised beds, window boxes, gardens, large container boxes, and in landscaping.

The porous structure of expanded shale absorbs water, therefore any fertilizer components dissolved in the water will also be absorbed onto the aggregate, porous-rock surfaces.  Extension researchers from Texas and Florida, J. Sloan, P. Ampim, R. Cabrera, W. Mackay, and S. George (Moisture and Nutrient Storage Capacity of Calcined Expanded Shale), have tested the bioavailability of nutrients loaded onto expanded shale by using Romaine lettuce.  Results demonstrated significant increases in the size and the mass of yield.  Shoot mass increased linearly from 0.1 grams with no fertilizer on expanded shale to 1.9 grams/pot with 100% fertilizer-treated expanded shale.  No additional fertilizer was needed for the 45 day crop rotation.

Dr. Steve George, Texas Agrilife Extension Service horticultural researcher in Dallas, recommends this expanded shale to “open up and aerate clay soils faster than any other product tested”.  His shale research work is extensive with two years of study and 6 years of field trials.  Expanded shale increased soil porosity (for drainage and aeration), reduced compaction (for healthier root systems), and insulated roots from temperature extremes.

Jim L. Turner, director of horticulture research at the Dallas Arboretum, praises its use for solving watering issues as overwatering causes more plant deaths than any other cause.  Expanded Shale is used extensively throughout the many beautiful gardens in the Dallas Arboretum to optimize water usage and conservation.

In your own gardens, utilize expanded shale by adding 3 inches of compost and 3 inches of expanded shale, then till to 8 inches deep.  Add top mulch to the mixed soil with a layer 3 inches deep. Continue mulch additions spring and fall.  Soil tests may reveal that additional commercial fertilizer is not needed due to decomposition additions from nutrient balanced mulch.

For containers, fill the bottom quarter with expanded shale, then add a mixture of 1/3 of each – expanded shale, compost, and garden soil.  Also add mulch to the top of the container. Due to our very hot summers and intense tropical solar light, use wood or other insulating material to reduce the temperatures on the surface of the container when the heat comes.  Always use a water meter to confirm moisture levels of your container soil.  Rain water is recommended due high sodium values (>100 ppm) in some of our local tap water supplies.

By late Spring 2014, an application-test demo plot will trial expanded shale and zeolite amendments to grow various garden vegetables in the Beauregard Demonstration Garden in DeRidder, La.  The initial soil was basic kaolinite clay subsoil with little nutrient value and low ability to retain nutrients.  In early November, compost and varying additions of zeolite were added to specific rows.  LSU AgCenter soil tests have indicated high nutrient values 6 weeks later in mid-December.  Identical mass of expanded shale will be added to ½ of each row.  Then in mid-March various vegetables will be planted.  Practical observations like yield, water meter readings, soil nutrient tests, soil bulk density, and plant health will be observed.  This Master Gardener application test is not meant to be a scientific experiment as the scope, time, and expense would be beyond volunteer resources.

Dinosaur dirt (Texas expanded shale) and porous volcanic rock (zeolite) soil conditioners have demonstrated their value in nutrient and water conservation by numerous scientific tests from NASA to University Extension Service experiments.  The nutrient cost-savings and environmental benefits of these products can be employed in cropping, forests, and in small-space gardening.  Experiments have proven that soil beneficial microbes are enhanced with greater moisture control, nutrient retention, and soil porosity, which should increase yields and Ag success.  “Let’s give it a try!”

Leave a comment »

Soil Science from the International Space Station Comes Down to Earth – In your Garden!

LSUAC4C72-80px[1]MasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

Soil Science from the International Space Station Comes Down to Earth – In your Garden!

By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, MS Biology

NASA has been developing artificial soils for several decades for use on long duration space flights.  These trials have proved that numerous crop species have growth and development similar to plants grown in ground controls.

2014 zeolite images

The advantages of the “Zeoponic Soil Systems” is that only water is needed for activation, and yields are substantially higher than those obtained from the field.  The objective is to have a soil substrate for plant growth that can be used in a regenerative life-support system ( a sealed sustainable living space).  Data from the Lada greenhouse in the space station has helped advance Earth-based greenhouses and controlled environment Ag systems.  This information is also used by researchers and farmers to produce better, healthier crops in small spaces with optimum amounts of water and nutrients.

Commercial products have been on the market for some time.  Examples are “Zeo-Pro” which is used as a slow release fertilizer on golf courses.  Another product “Miracle Mountain Zeolite” sells zeolite as a garden amendment.  For gardening purposes, be sure the zeolite is without a sodium load, examine the heavy metal report, and assure the product is oriented for Ag purposes. Many other products and expanded use of zeolites are expected as advantages are learned.  It is definitely a 21st century product.  Applications include odor control products (Horse Stall Refresher), Fish hatchery water treatment, a Portland Cement substitute, Kitty Litter, and higher yields in crops and pastures.

What are the benefits of using zeolite in horticulture applications?  1) The CEC (cation exchange capacity – value of available nutrients) is increased.  2) Soil porosity and water holding properties are improved which results in decreases in water run-off and ponding 3) Zeolite increases nitrogen retention by reducing ammonia volatilization, therefore reducing nitrogen pollution. 4) It improves the fertilizer efficiency by capturing nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium and other trace nutrients for utilization by plants. 5) Zeolite can be used as an inorganic substitute for peat moss in mixes.  6) It helps to open compacted soils.  7) biological activity is increased by supporting nitrifying soil bacteria.

A most important use of zeolite is its role in developing controllable and renewable fertilization plans to provide plant growth nutrients.  It can be used to mitigate the adverse effects water contamination due to highly soluble and concentrated fertilizers.

Zeolite is a crystalline, porous alumino-silicate with a unique interconnecting, honeycomb lattice structure.  This structure of channels of negatively charged alumina, with neutral silica tetrahedral building blocks, can effectively capture positively charged nutrient ions.  Because of zeolite’s molecular composition, it has incredible absorbent and adsorbent properties.

In nature, zeolites are naturally formed microporous, alumino-silicates that are found where volcanic rocks and ash layers react with alkaline groundwater.  The mineral is also known as clinoptilolite.  Check bags of “Kitty Litter” and “Horse Stall Refresher” for clinoptilolite as the effective ingredient. Obnoxious odors and gasses are trapped in the mineral honeycomb structure of these commercial products like fertilizer nutrients are captured in soil-use zeolites.

Most of our local acidic soils are classified as Ultisols composed of kaolinite which has a very low ability (low CEC number) to retain plant nutrients.  Therefore most of the commercial fertilizer is lost through leaching with rains and irrigation water.  Typically the top 3 to 6” of topsoil contains nearly all of the nutrient value.  Additional nutrient depletion occurs when crops are harvested, and when the soil is left barren, and oxidized by tillage.  However this soil can be frequently amended with organic matter and humus to increase the pH to a more neutral value, and to increase the CEC to a higher fertility value.  This usually requires much labor and effort.

A better system may be to utilize zeolites, organic matter, and inorganic minerals.  This approach uses the advantages of each.  The zeolite adds a long term substrate to improve the CEC, porosity, nutrient and water retention, and microbial life.  The organic matter with cellulose gives life to the soil, water retention, porosity, structure and acts as a slow release fertilizer upon decomposition.  Inorganic minerals can be added to supplement deficiencies as indicated by testing or visual symptoms.  The overall effect is that leachate pollution is minimized, and fertilization, water, and labor cost are also reduced, while yields are high.

Researchers from the University of Cambridge (Aug 2013, Peter Leggo) has shown that even marginal land like deserts can grow fruits and vegetables using a zeolite mix with chicken manure.  Control experiments have shown that dew water can be held on zeolite until the hottest part of the day, which increases overall soil moisture content for plant growth. Dr. Peter Leggo of the Department of Earth Sciences says, “Previously, you’d douse crops with chemicals, and it caused a huge reduction in soil microbial diversity.  The material we’ve developed takes less energy to produce, improves soil structure, and enables you to grow crops on almost any type of soil”.  Plans are to commercialize the product for world markets.

You may wish to experiment in your own gardens with zeolite soil conditioners and fertilizers.  Let us know about your experiences and procedures to share with others in the 21st century.

Leave a comment »

A New Additive for Poor Soils

AgCenter letterheadMasGarTM5x7_w85[1]

A New Additive for Poor Soils

By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, M.S. Biology

Simply put, what does it take to have a good garden?  University of Cambridge researchers have developed an additive that is capable of growing crops on landfills, deserts, 3rd world agricultural wastelands, and even on gravel.  The ingredients are fairly common, therefore anyone should be able to use this additive or the garden principles of the components, to apply to practically any soil.  What are these mysterious substances – an organic composted manure and zeolite.   The zeolite is a ground, mineral-containing volcanic aluminosilicate rock.  Add the correct amount of good water, proper light, an appropriate temperature range, and air for a “successful garden”.  It is that simple.  Now let’s look at compost and zeolite to understand how they work for plants.

2014 zeolite images

Zeolite is formed from volcanoes when pressurized liquid aluminosilicates and other minerals are suddenly released into our atmosphere.  The liquid fizzes out gases, cools, then solidifies like a sponge with a high porosity (up to 45%) and a huge surface area (up to 450 meters/gram).  This open framework traps and exchanges valuable plant nutrients (positive ions like calcium, magnesium, ammonium, potassium and trace elements that are essential for plant growth and development).  This is what makes it ideal as a soil, compost, and fertilizer additive that captures, and slowly releases critical plant nutrients.  Zeolite also physically functions to improve soil structure which allows water and air to flow through with less nutrient leeching and long term soil improvements.  The cation exchange capacity (CEC) improvements jump from an approximate 10 (our poor Ultisol soil) to an excellent +120 meq./100g.

Organic plant and animal compost also improves soil structure, but the mechanisms are different from mineral Zeolite.  The “Super Glue” of the soil structure, glomalin (a glycoprotein), was discovered by Sara F. Wright, a USDA scientist in 1996 from fungi.  Glomalin along with humic acid, are a significant component of compost and soil organic matter.  These two complex organic substances bind, store, and slowly release mineral particles which results in improvements in soil quality.  Glomalin stores up to 27% of total soil carbon compared to humus’s 8%.  Also glomalin makes nitrogen available to soil, provides structure to hold water and for aeration, keeps spaces for root growth, and stabilizes the soil against erosion.  In crop soils where fungicides have been applied, there is a reduction in productivity, due to reduction of glomalin production.

The soil life factor of compost really gets the plants growing.  The action of microbes is phenomenal as atmospheric nitrogen is changed to useable forms of nitrogen by fungi, bacteria, protozoa and actinomycetes.  When these microbes excrete or die, useable minerals and organic compounds are released back into the soil as slow released nutrients.  Many new organic fertilizers list the beneficial microbes that inhabit the rhizosphere of roots to form symbiotic relationships (mycorrhizal, antibiotic, enzymatic, etc.)  with plants.  Larger forms of life, from insects to worms, open tunnels for root growth, gases, and water.

The balance and correct ratio of four chemical elements (calcium, magnesium, potassium, and sodium) influence the physical structure of the soil and the pH also.  A correct soil chemistry is necessary to build the house for the biology.  For example, if you have a soil or compost that is loaded with sodium from a tap water supply, your plants will not grow to their potential.  Excess sodium will cause soil structure to collapse, suck the life out of plants, and will destroy microbial life.  Calcium in cell membranes is the doorman that regulates the nutrients that enter the plant.  If you have too little calcium in plants, larger amounts of all other nutrients are required for the same yield.  And the complexity continues with other minerals.  Therefore your best plan is to get a soil test.  Get a box from the LSU AgCenter for quick results in several days.  Apply minerals as recommended in the reports.

Chances are that most compost additions will buffer the soil, will provide adequate nutrient levels, and will supply trace minerals.  Remember that there are accumulator plants that concentrate particular minerals and will affect the pH.  What you put into a compost pile is what you get out.  Therefore it is a good idea to test compost made from few plant sources before it is added to soil.  A wide variety of material usually produces the best mineral-balanced compost.

The most important aspects of gardening are knowledge and experience.   Like any art or science, it requires an input of effort, trial and error, and patience.  Additions of zeolite and animal compost to your soil will probably produce a decent garden.  However, learning the details of gardening will lead to spectacular gardens.  Master Gardener classes will begin in January.  Call the LSU AgCenter at (337)460-7006 for registration.

Leave a comment »