Don’t call it dirt! A report on soils workshop

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Published on: March 26, 2018

Transition Brockville / 26 March 2018

Mary Ann Van Berlo, a Master Gardener from Maitland, gave a lively, fact-filled talk on soil improvement, “Don’t Call It Dirt!” at the March 25, 2018 Transition Brockville meeting at the Brockville Public Library. Her big “take-away” message was this: “If you want to improve your soil, ADD ORGANIC MATTER!”

Organic matter can add air spaces to any soil, from clay to sand. With organic matter, clay soils open up and allow water to pass through, and sandy soils are able to retain water longer. She demonstrated by taking a glass jar filled with pebbles representing sand grains and mixing organic matter (from leaf and yard waste, manure and compost) in with them, creating a soil that could absorb water. Then she took a glass jar with fine-grained stone dust, representing clay. Water poured on it would simply sit on the top, but mixing in organic matter opens up the clay, allowing water and air to get down to plants’ roots.

To find out if your soil has more sand or clay, half fill a Mason jar with some of your garden soil, add water till the jar is three-quarters full, cover and shake the contents. Let them settle until the sand layer is on the bottom, silt above the sand, and clay above the silt; some materials will be suspended above these, and organic matter will float at the top. You will be able to see what percentage of your soil is sand, silt or clay.

Because organic matter does eventually decompose, it’s necessary to add more each year. Allow leaves to fall in the garden beds and overwinter there; shred other leaves (with a mower or with a whipper-snipper down into a barrel of leaves). Obtain manure from an organic farmer, spread it on beds to about 5 cm. depth in the fall and let the worms take it down into the soil by spring. Make your own compost. Mary Ann recommended a no-till approach to gardening, leaving all the soil nutrients and micro-organisms in the first few inches of soil, available to plant roots.

She mentioned a soil testing service (at least a $75 charge) provided by an Ottawa company, Eurofins Environment Testing, but said it should not be necessary to go to that expense, if things are growing fine in your garden. If you are worried about soil contamination, a test would be a good idea.

As for adding amendments such as greensand, sulphur and others, “I’m not big on this,” she said. “I prefer a closed loop system, using what grows on the property to nurture the property. “Be careful adding amendments: It’s so easy to throw the balance off.”

To add trace elements to your soil, turn to comfrey, nettles and horsetails, from which you can make a “tea” by soaking each in a bucket with water, covering it and letting it steep in the sun for two weeks. Filter out the plant matter and use the concentrate at a rate of 1 to 10 (or 15) to water plants.

Mary Ann also provided these resources: