We all know that a healthy garden starts with healthy soil. But getting that soil in top condition can take a lot of time and effort- as well as money. In the past I shared 9 Gardening Supplies You Can Get for Free, and guess what? You can improve your garden soil for free too!
8 Free Ways to Improve Your Garden Soil
Chopped Leaves (or Leaf Mold)
Don’t let all those fallen leaves go to waste! Leaves are full of minerals and once they are added to the garden they feed earthworms and other microbes. They can also lighten heavy clay soils and help to retain moisture in lighter sandy soils. They are a wonderful source of carbon.
It’s best if you chop the leaves before adding them to the garden. The easiest way is to just mow over them a few time with a mower and then rake them up. Place them on top of you garden beds to decompose through the winter and early spring, then you can either till them in or use them as a base of a no-till garden.
If you have access to a lot of leaves you can try making leaf mold by taking your chopped leaves and bagging them up for a year- or at least through one season. Alternately you can just rake your leaves into a big pile and wait- but that doesn’t work too well are here where winter winds just blow the leaves clear across the valley!
Leaf mold can greatly improve your soil and it rivals peat moss in its ability to retain moisture.
If you have been gardening long, you are sure to have heard about the Back to Eden Gardening method which uses wood chips as a top mulch for the garden. The benefits of a garden mulched like this are the reduction of soil erosion, less weeds to compete for nutrients, and better water retention. Most other soil amendments can simply be placed on top or gently raked into the wood chips.
Wood chips can usually be found for free through tree services or your local green recycling facility. Check with your local power company too, as they do a lot of chipping when the clear down trees and line and during general upkeep.
If you’ve got a fireplace or a wood-burning stove then you have a great soil amendment right in your ash box! Wood Ash contains a good amount of potassium and calcium as well as a lot of micronutrients from the trees from which the wood came. Wood Ash will help improve the pH of your soil, making it more alkaline- which means keep it away from acid-loving plants such as blueberries.
Wood Ash can be used as a replacement for the lime usually called for on soils with low pH. It is best to spread the ash in fall, and throughout winter, but stopping a good few weeks before spring planting.
Your Kitchen Scraps
Your kitchen is a gold mine for soil amendments! Your morning coffee grounds. Your daily banana peel. All those egg shells! All of these things will add something different to you soil in terms of nutrients. How you deal with this compost is up to you- add it to your compost pile daily and apply it to your garden when it has decomposed. Dig it into your soil immediately. Add certain scraps to the holes at planting time. Or even just throw it on top the garden and let it decompose naturally into the soil.
Coffee grounds, when mixed into the soil or compost, will improve your soil structure, tilth, and even help to repel certain pests. The grounds are high in nitrogen, which is great for those heavy feeders in your garden. Mixing them together with your leaf mold will make the perfect mulch for your garden.
Coffee ground have long been said to be highly acidic- making them perfect for those acid loving plants. I have read recent conflicting research both dispelling this and proving it. So, I say, go ahead and mix the grounds in around your acid loving plants- it can’t hurt either way! Just don’t dump them on. Unless you want a pile of mold hanging out around your garden.
No matter how much coffee you drink you probably won’t get enough grounds to improve your garden soil too much, luckily, if you check with your local Starbucks or other coffee houses they are probably just looking for a way to unload all those grounds!
Yes, urine. Human urine is sterile and is actually one of the best soil amendments and fertilizers around. Urine is super high in nitrogen and contains phosphorus and potassium (You know, NPK fertilizers?) It also contains a lot of other trace nutrients, all of which are very readily available for your plants.
Now, urine can be too concentrated, so you probably don’t want to just go around peeing directly on your plants all the time. But diluting it with water or rigging a composting toilet of sorts with some saw dust in a bucket is a good way to go.
The benefits are that urine is 100% free. You can save water with less flushing going on. And you might help deter pests (mammals, not insects) in your garden from the scent.
No not human manure, but manure from any farm animals you might have- or those in the community might have. Manure from all sorts of animals can be added to your garden beds and fill it with nutrients to help improve your garden soil and feed your plants. Pay attention to which manures can be added fresh versus which manures are hot and need to compost and break down before you can plant in them.
Chickens. Goats. Cows. Alpacas. Sheep. Rabbit. Horses. All are great sources of manure. If you don’t have any of these animals yourself, check in your community. Most large farms are looking for a way to unload the stuff after barn cleanings. All it takes is a shovel and some manual labor to go get it.
Spent Hay or Straw
Hay or straw is an easy way to add a large amount of green matter to your soil. It’s best used as a top dressing and allow it to decompose on the soil adding nutrients as it does. Fresh bales can be expensive, but often you can find farms giving away bales that have gone bad- have gotten wet, moldy, or spoiled in some other way. You can also visit places that sell fresh bales and offer to sweep out the truck and take all the busted bales and loose material. You can also get wasted hay, that animals have picked through and is now on the ground getting stomped on.
If you are worried about weed seeds, just allow your hay to sit for a few months- allowing any seeds to sprout and the material to decompose a bit. Or just layer it all on in the fall as you put the garden to bed for the winter and let it rot until spring planting time comes along.
Do you have any other free or dirt cheap ways to improve your garden soil? Share them in the comments!
© 2016, Sarah R Toney. All rights reserved.