Become a Garden Recycler
By William McCaleb, Master Gardener Coordinator
Here are some creative things that will help build soil structure and health, and it will even repel some pathogens. To improve garden soils, instead of just buying additives for the soil, why not use discarded wastes and materials from the kitchen and landscape, reducing both cost and waste that would normally go to the landfill.
Recycle and save a couple of bucks. Compost is the primary example of this recycling. Some kitchen waste also can have more specialized uses in the garden. And, some don't even have to be composted to utilize their thrown away nutrients. Here are five household and landscape wastes to recycle in the garden and how to use them:
Eggshells can be used as a slug barrier or a soil amendment. Coarsely crushed eggshells sprinkled in a ring around plants can keep slugs away. The soft-bodied slugs don't like to drag themselves across the sharp-edged eggshells. Finely ground or decomposed eggshells also will add calcium to soil. While calcium gets less attention than the Big 3 of garden fertilizers (nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), it's vital to the health of plants, helping plants wtih water uptake and cell development.
Calcium is apt to be deficient or unavailable in dry, acidic (native soil) or high potassium soils. Calcium-deficient tomatoes and peppers are susceptible to blossom end rot. Calcium-deficient potatoes are small and susceptible to brown rotten spots. And, don't forget the health of broccoli as calcium-deficiency may cause the lack of head production.
To give a quick calcium boost, grind eggshells finely by pounding them with a mortar and pestle or drying them well, putting them in a plastic bag and pulverizing them with a hammer or rolling pin. Hand-crushed eggshells added to the soil, or large pieces of eggshell added to the compost, will boost calcium in the long term when they break down. It is a long-term process as the egg shells do take a while to break down.
It takes a lot of eggshell to make a difference. Putting pulverized eggshells in the bottom of each planting hole before setting out tomatoes is a good practice. Many know the effects of blossom end rot. Eggshells also have a mild liming effect, raising soil pH and reducing acidity. Once again, eggshells must be finely crushed to see quick results.
Save those discarded coffee grounds as they are a good source of nitrogen. Some serious composters collect grounds from coffee shops to use in their compost piles in place of manure. The pH of most coffee grounds is usually near neutral (7.0). Mix them well with high-carbon materials like leaves or straw, so they'll break down well. Composted coffee grounds improve soil structure and attract earthworms. Fresh coffee grounds, like fresh manure, can "burn" plants on contact, so be careful. All garden plants need some nitrogen. Nitrogen-loving plants that especially will benefit from the addition of composted coffee grounds include lettuce, spnach and cold crops such as broccoli, cauliflower, kale or brussel sprouts, just to name a few.
There are more foods from the kitchen pantry and table that can be recycled and used such as table scraps (no meats) that do not contain large amounts of salt. Salad greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, potatoes, etc. make good compost. Don't forget to toss tea bags in as well.
With all of this cold frigid winter air, those wood stoves or a wood burning fireplace will have ashes to get rid of. Wood ashes are used both to provide nutrients to the soil and to raise pH and reduce acidity. Ashes are a good source of calcium, potassium and phosphorus. Ashes can be added to compost piles or mixed directly into soil. Do not use wood ash as a fertilizer if soil is already slightly alkaline. Not many in Halifax County face that problem, but there are a few. Also, make sure that the ashes are cold with no cinders active before applying.
Moving outdoors to what is available, pine needles (pine tags) offer a treasure trove of good organic matter to help soil structure. Pine needles can be used to lower soil Ph, making it more acidic. They can be used as mulch around acid-loving crops like blueberries and strawberries, or added to compost in areas with overly alkaline soil. When adding pine needles to the compst, increasing their surface area (mowing over them) will greatly speed up the time needed for them to breakdown.
Once spring emerges and it is not that far away, grass clippings will be available to use as an additive to a compost pile where they will breakdown rather quickly if kept moist. Lawn clippings are nitrogen-rich, therefore they decompose quickly. Just don't apply them in layers more than one-inch thick, or they may start to break down anaerobically and stink.
To correct that, use a pitchfork to turn the compost and let the pile breathe with the additional air pockets added by turning the pile. Do not use clippings in compost if herbicides have been applied to lawns.
By chewing up leaves and adding them to compost, along with the grass clippings, it makes for a working warm compost pile that will be well degraded and ready for use in the vegetable garden in the spring.