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Garden Resolutions: No. 2 Organic Matter

Recently during a trip to the garbage dump, I was stopped by the attendant in mid-garbage bag throw.  

“Hey! Stop right there! Do you have any yard waste in those bags?”

I was taken aback. “What?” I replied.

“You know, like leaves or sticks?”

I was quite offended. My cheeks began to burn hot red. Who does this guy take me for?, I thought. 

“Excuse me, Sir,” I began, “I am a horticulturalist. My business is built on organic matter. Organic matter is practically the source of life. Other than water, it’s the most important ingredient of a healthy, nutritious soil. For me to throw a bag of leaves and sticks into this container would be me throwing my career, my beliefs, my very life into this container.”

He shoved his hand deeper into his overalls. “Have a nice day.” Even though I would never dream of removing organic matter from my garden, many do. They not only dream of it, they actually do it. The senseless trashing of mountains of leaves must end. Here’s why: 1. It’s not natural. When God made the trees, shrubs, and all things green, He told them to drop their leaves. Whether evergreen or deciduous, all plants eventually drop leaves. These leaves are consumed by macro and micro animal life- from earthworms to mushrooms to tiny protozoa. They use the nutrition in the leaf to grow themselves and replicate. Eventually, as with all living things, they die. After their death, they release nutrition back into the soil that the plants can then, once again, utilize for their own growth. Ah, that glorious cycle continues! Removing fallen leaves means removing a food source for earthworms and all those detritus-loving critters. Without these guys present in the soil, trees wouldn’t be able to imbibe the necessary nutrients for their growth and they would slowly but inevitably die. The cycle, broken. Removing leaves and other organic matter from your garden and landscape is not natural. 2. You lose money. “Other than using gas money to drive my leaf litter to the dump, how could I be losing money?,” you might ask. Let’s work through a little math to find out how. But first, the key to all of what follows is knowing that grass clippings themselves hold about 33% of a lawn’s required nitrogen. Keep this in mind. It’s going to be quite important a little later, but now to the math! 

So, the average lawn in America is roughly 8,700 square feet. The average cost of fertilizing a lawn is 3 cents per square foot in Atlanta, Ga., plus 30 bucks in labor. This means that to fertilize the average Southern lawn, you would be spending about $291.00. And that’s just for ONE application! Remember the 33% thing? By removing your grass cuttings you essentially are removing $97 worth of fertilizer from your lawn. That’s $97 worth of fertilizer that must be replaced for the crop to grow. By allowing the clippings to fall to the ground and be recycled by those detritus lovers, you are saving money. And the myth about grass clippings causing thatch, well, it’s just that- a myth. Let the clippings fall. After all, it’s what God intended. 3. Organic Matter is a Moderator. When we get hot, we take off our shirt. When we get cold, we put on a jacket. When we thirst, we drink. These are all things that we do naturally to moderate our bodily needs. Plants, the soil, and micro life work together to keep the “ecological body” moderated. But it’s really organic matter that does the majority of this work. Organic matter moderates soil temperature and soil moisture. When a soil is exposed, without a nice layer of mulch atop it, the ever-burning sun will cast it’s warm rays on the soil, causing the soil to scorch and life-giving water to evaporate. Likewise, at night, without a layer of mulch to hold heat in, ground heat will be released and soils will cool. With a layer of organic matter on top, soils will remain within a healthy temperature range and provide suitable amounts of water, improving life for both flora and fauna. 

Organic matter moderates soil erosion and runoff. During a heavy rainfall, soil has two options: to remain in place or flow down stream. Without organic matter to bind sand, silt, and clay together, soil would always take the second option. When organic matter is broken down in soil, it binds to mineral particles to construct what we call “aggregates.” Imagine breaking a slice of cake apart with your hands. The large chunks that still hold together would be “aggregates.” These tightly bound structures help to keep soil intact by allowing for proper filtration of water as opposed to water running off the top. Without organic matter, your soil winds up somewhere downstream. Organic matter moderates soil nutrition. In soil science there is a fancy word called “Cation Exchange Capacity.” It simply means “a soil’s ability to hold on to nutrients.” Ok, now that you know its meaning, you can forget “Cation Exchange Capacity.” Because decomposed matter has both negative and positive charges it attracts both positively and negatively charged nutrients within the soil- keeping them tightly bound to the soil as opposed to washing away. With increased levels of organic matter in soil comes increased fertility of the soil. Organic matter is the moderator you’ve been looking for all along. To wrap this all up, I’ll admit that I might’ve been a little too harsh with the unsuspecting garbage compactor attendant, but who cares? Organic matter and its presence within our garden soils is important. So, instead of throwing away bags and bags of leaves in the fall, just blow them into your beds and borders. The way God intended. Or, instead of paying someone to rid your lawn of grass clippings, just let them fall. They’ll be decomposed in just a few weeks anyhow and you’ll be saving money. Spread a bag of mulch or two around your perennial beds and relish how your soil’s characteristics are majestically being moderated. Building your soil, whether it’s in a vegetable garden, a Bermuda lawn, or a shrub border, should be a top Garden Resolution for you in 2018.

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