The red clay “dirt” we try to grow things in is poor — better-suited for making bricks, constructing roads, holding ponds and supporting houses.
When it gets wet, it makes mud.
When it dries out, it becomes concrete.
This “red dirt” is surely not worthy of growing plants.
Nature, though, has a way of healing things over time, of turning bad situations into good. An unproductive red clay field or empty dirt lot will, over time, return to a forest.
If we study nature, we will see that organic matter is recycled to improve the soil. What is missing in our red clay soil is the organic matter.
If we mimic nature, we can transform our red clay gardens and poor planting beds, by adding organic matter in the form of mulch or compost.
Mulch should be placed around all plants. As in nature, mulch conserves soil moisture, reduces soil compaction, eliminates erosion and suppresses nuisance weeds. It also maintains ideal soil temperature, supplies organic matter, improves soil structure and adds beauty to the garden and landscape.
Mulches are either organic or inorganic. Organic mulches are plant material and will decompose to become compost and part of the soil. Organic mulches must be replenished periodically, due to their rate of decomposition. Examples are leaves, grass clippings, pine bark, wood chips, pine straw, wheat straw, newspapers and cardboard.
Examples of inorganic mulches are weed fabric, gravel, crushed stone and plastics. They do not have all the advantages of organic mulches. They simply hide the red clay dirt, but do nothing to improve it or benefit the plants around it.
Composting is the natural process of breaking down organic material by microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi.
On a forest floor, the leaf mulch and other plant materials are slowly decomposed and recycled into new soil, commonly called “woods dirt.” The same process can occur when homeowners start a backyard compost pile.
The composted plant material, once broken down, becomes a dark, crumbly, soil-like product called humus. This recycled product, sometimes referred to as “gardener’s gold,” is an outstanding soil amendment.
When humus is mixed into a vegetable garden or flower bed, it dramatically improves soil structure, water retention, drainage and fertility. It helps sandy soils hold more water and nutrients. It improves drainage and aeration of tight clay soils.
Add the humus to your planting hole or spread a layer of it over the ground before tilling. Lawns can even be improved by topdressing them with humus.
Add mulch and compost to your to-do list or shopping list this spring. Your plants will love it, and you can say you’re growing in “soil” instead of “dirt.”
Shane Harris is an extension agent for the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. For help on other home and garden questions, contact your local county Extension office or visit www.aces.edu.