Lee Miller wants to tell you that soil is alive. Miller is an avid home gardener with more than 130 varieties of dahlias, a 30,000 square feet garden, and a small orchard on the Lined home he shares with his wife.
He’s also a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension and has more than 1,000 hours of volunteer work to his name. Miller has worked with the group for six years and gives free presentations to groups several times a year. On Saturday 30 local backyard gardeners gathered at the city of Stockton Delta Water Supply Project Building to learn about Miller’s tips to use compost for a healthier soil.
The first lesson of the Happy Soil, Happy Plants workshop was that soil and dirt are not equal.
“Dirt is what you pull out of your vacuum cleaner,” said Miller. “Soil is alive.”
There are millions of bacteria making their home in just a teaspoon of soil. The best has at least five percent organic matter, and a strong crumb-like texture. How do gardeners get that kind of soil? They make it in bins, barrels, tumblers and piles. It’s compost.
“Have you ever been out in the forests and seen the duff on the forest floor?” he asked. “That’s natural compost.”
Plants need two things from their soil: something to hold their roots in place, and nutritious food. Soil that has grown too many plants is devoid of nutrients, but compost uses organic scraps to replenish that lost nutrition.
Compost is a delicate balance of greens, browns and water, said Miller. That’s a combination of nitrogen and carbon, plus moisture to keep the whole mix blending together
Greens are fruit and veggie scraps, eggshells, tea leaves and bags, and fresh lawn clippings. Browns are the dry stuff, like leaves, twigs, nuts, shells, shredded paper, or even dryer lint. Keep weeds, diseased plants and anything with pesticides out of the compost pile. If you want it out of the garden, you don’t want it in compost, said Miller.
If your compost system is large scale, Miller recommended picking up used coffee grounds at a coffee shop to keep the grounds out of landfills. It takes about a cubic yard of material to get started and get the temperatures inside high enough to break down the organic matter.
At this point, even if the pile or bin is left alone, compost will happen. But without help it can take years. Keep the pile damp. Turn and mix it a few times a week. Keep tossing in kitchen and yard scraps, but keep it balanced. Miller says the ideal compost heap is two parts browns and one part greens. If you hit the balance, the pile won’t have any smell.
But tiny microorganisms do all the hard work. Bacteria, fungi and actinomycetes are the real workhorses of the small, rich ecosystem. As soon as all the bits and scraps look decomposed, the pile smells earthy and everything looks like a fine soil, it’s ready to use.
Mille recommends laying the compost out on a tarp in the sun to get rid of bugs before adding it to seedling beds, using it as potting soil, or topping off the garden.
Miller also shared tips on worm composting, and grass cycling to keep lawn clippings out of the trash.
Oh, and if you see a great deal on an “all in one, self mixing composter,” pass it up, said Miller.
“I always worry about these gimmick things gardeners fall for, like the upside down tomato plant thing,” he said. “It’s better to take the time, do the work, and create great healthy soil.”