Mulching is the process of adding organic material (Lawn clippings, leaves, sawdust, bark chunks) around plants growing in the garden. The mulch helps retain moisture, keep plants cool, blocks weeds from growing, and adds nutrients and organic material to the soil as it breaks down. As decomposing mulch takes nitrogen from the soil, it is a good idea to add nitrogen when you add the mulch.
Plants need nutrients (chemicals) to help them grow. These can come from inorganic (chemical) or organic (natural) sources. Both types can be purchased to meet specific needs. Organic fertilizers can also be found at home, although quantities and qualities are less precise. Coffee grounds, eggshells, banana peels, and other kitchen waste (but no meat, fat, or bones!), leaves, lawn clippings, sawdust and other organic compounds can add some nutrients. There are three main chemicals in fertilizer—Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K). Every fertilizer label lists the percentage by weight of these three ingredients (NPK) and then any other nutrients included. If you use a chemical fertilizer, look for a balanced one. These contain equal or nearly equal amounts of NPK fertilizer (10-10-10 or 15-10-8).
Composting is the process of breaking down organic material into soil. This is done by building a compost pile (freestanding or enclosed). Gather materials to be composted (lawn trimmings, leaves, kitchen waste—no meat, fat, or bones—and other organic material). Shred or chop. Dig a hole. Put material in hole, cover lightly with dirt, mix it up, add some water, cover lightly with dirt. In a few days dig the material, mix it up, water it, and add another light coating of dirt. Continue this process until the composted material is no longer visible. Now it can be added to other soil, used as mulch, or used for planting seeds. If you don’t have the time or energy to turn it all the time don’t worry, it will eventually decompose on its own. A simple way to compost small amounts is to take the daily kitchen scraps and bury them among the growing plants in the garden. Be sure to remember where yesterday’s scraps are buried and stay away from plant roots. Another easy way to compost is in the spring and fall when the garden is not planted, start at one end of the garden, and dig a hole. When you have enough organic material, bury it in the hole. Dig another hole and continue the process. By the time you get to the end of the garden you can start again.
Organic or Chemical?
Many people, especially those growing their own food, feel that organic is the way to go. Others feel that proper use of chemicals is safe and easy. The choice is yours. There are organic fertilizers, pesticides, and insecticides. They may not be quite as fast or effective as chemicals, but they will not harm the environment, they allow for biodiversity, they provide “clean” crops, and they encourage you to be active in your garden.
Good luck in your gardening adventure! If you can’t afford starting seeds, be sure to visit VIA’s Rooted In Voluntaryism page to request help.