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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

natural, safe soil amendments

If you have children or pets who play outside, you certainly want everything you spray, shovel, till or spread on your yard to be totally safe. That’s why every landscape design I do, and many of the ones done by other professionals, are accompanied by the caution to avoid the use of artificial soil amendments. Materials found in nature are almost always safe and are often less expensive. Sometimes free! (note that not everything found in nature is good – for instance, arsenic is natural).  Some of the amendments are mixed into the soil, some go on top of the soil – so follow directions. Here’s a brief description of some:
No matter how disgusting your soil seems, leave it be and improve it naturally. (Of course, remove large rocks and such). You can even cultivate it, but never get rid of it.  The native soil is what our native trees and flowers are genetically accustomed to growing in. If the soil is made too “good” or is fertilized a lot, our native plants may not grow. Especially if you’re planting a tree, save the soil you dig up, and refill the hole with it, possibly mixing in a little organic matter such as dead leaves.

Dead leaves, shredded into smaller pieces, make a superb mulch or soil amendment. A once-over with a lawn mower, shredding the leaves and blowing them right back on the grass, works quite well. It's obviously inexpensive and time-saving too.

These work fantastically, and do not contain any filler material of questionable origin. Organic fertilizers don’t have abnormally-high levels of nitrogen or harmful salts, which probably will cause you to water your lawn more often in the future. Everything that’s in it is needed for healthy plant growth, and will not harm children, pets or birds.


Horticultural corn meal naturally stimulates beneficial soil microorganisms, to control fungal diseases that might otherwise attack your plants. It also helps make nutrients more available to plants, acting as a mild fertilizer. Some people use it to control algae in ponds and other water features.


Not to be confused with the above (on penalty of a brown garden), corn gluten meal is what’s called a pre-emergent; stopping seeds from germinating. For unwanted growth, it’s best applied about March 1 and again on June 1. Avoid spreading it where “good” seeds are planted (it won’t kill growing plants at all).


Earthworms eat organic matter in the soil and excrete “castings”. Do I really need to say any more?  All good, nutritious soils have this naturally. It’s an excellent,  odorless fertilizer – good for adding to potting soil too. It’s sold under several brand names.


This is easily the best form of organic matter. (It’s the product of a natural decomposition process, where it takes decades.) The result is the kind of soil we should have. Compost can be made quickly at home or is sold at lots of places. It is full of microscopic beneficial organisms, loaded with nutrients, and it recycles things like old leaves, dead shrubs and grass clippings that could otherwise wind up in landfills.


Good soil is alive - containing microorganisms and fungi that help plants grow. Molasses feeds and stimulates these organisms, essentially acting as a natural fertilizer. Technically, it adds carbon to the soil. It is available in the wet or dry, granular form, or you can just get blackstrap molasses at the grocery store.


This sand helps plants grow when mixed into your native soil, unlike concrete sand or the kind of sand you buy for a sandbox.  Primarily it helps keep moisture in the soil, so you have to water the yard less. It also makes nutrients, found naturally in all soils, more available to your plants – so you need to fertilize less. There are several kinds available, and several brand names. Often called “lava sand”, it’s especially good at keeping your soil moist and your water bill low.


Mined from ancient seabeds, it’s packed with organic matter and trace minerals. It also contains a high percentage of iron and is non-toxic – so is an excellent iron supplement for your plants.


This is a naturally-occurring mineral that has been used in agriculture for years. There is no man-made chemical process involved. Ironite does many things;  it’s a mild fertilizer, stimulating root growth and fighting the natural deficiency of iron common in area soils. It also helps plants take up the nutrients found naturally in even the most unpromising dirt.


Derived from the Neem tree (which grows in India and Burma), neem oil is biodegradable and is a botanical insecticide.  It’s not really an amendment, but an insect-controlling spray. Neem oil is primarily used to control grasshoppers by disrupting their growth cycle. Neem oil can also control spidermites, aphids and whiteflies, as well as controlling most kinds of fungus. Sprayed on plants, it makes them unappetizing to many insects (ordinary soap and water will do this too).


This is an underused material (sold under several brand names, such as Norit) especially for those who have used all sorts of chemicals in your yard, but now want to go straight. Basically it holds certain elements, releasing them to your plants with perfectly natural efficiency – or not releasing the harmful or unnecessary ones at all. It has proven detoxifying properties as well as an ability to deodorize.

Every one of these soil amendments is effective and they’re sold under a variety of brand names by responsible garden centers and feed stores. What’s more they won’t damage the birds and butterflies that visit your yard.



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