A healthy wildlife garden has about a gazillion life forms in it, and you will never see most of them — just their effects. I am speaking of the trillions and trillions of soil microbes that are needed for good growth in any garden.
Microbes are not “germs!” Microbes are simply microscopic life. And microbes are myriad —in both shear numbers and variety of species. Technically there are five kingdoms of organisms on Earth: bacteria, algae, fungi, plants, and animals. Every kingdom has a whole suite of microbes. And every microbe has an important, even momentous, role to play.
To grow here in the desert Southwest, all plants, even desert plants, will grow better if organic matter is added to the soil. Many desert plants start best in the leaf litter under a “nurse” tree, which tells you some of the importance of litter, especially after it degrades into “organic matter.” But organic matter is needed for a good garden in more climates than just the desert.
Organic matter is made by decomposing plant materials, AKA compost. Compost is made from vegetable matter kitchen waste and landscape debris, or it can be store bought. But store-bought compost is not the best organic matter for the soil. This is because one key component is missing — living microbes. Commercial compost is sterilized before packaging.
To really help your garden, you need a compost that is rich with the myriad microbes that form the complex web of life. This comes from compost that you make yourself. Compost does not require special equipment, or piles of smelly materials.
The easiest way to make compost is to do what Mother Nature does and “sweep it under the rug.” Rake fallen leaves and plant debris back under the plants it came from. Mother Nature doesn’t rake her garden!
Rock mulch is popular in the southwest, and if you have it in your yard, rake the rock aside first. This helps forms a well to hold the plant debris. Once you have the plant debris under the plant, water the debris. The water will help stick the debris together. The microbes that are naturally all around us will take care of the rest, turning the plant debris into organic matter for the plant.
You can actively create compost in deeper pits. Dig a large hole and add plant debris. Add a thin layer of soil on top, and water daily. Microbes will do the rest. With pit composting, you can add all the plant waste from your kitchen. Coffee grounds, tea bags, lettuce leaves, and even those rotten refried beans or spaghetti from the back of the fridge — all are plant debris and can be added to the compost pit. Each time you add more plant debris, add a soil layer on top. Otherwise the debris may attract flies or in arid climates, it may dry out and mummify.
You could compost in a bin. Anything can serve as a compost bin. I like the conveniently portable 5 gallon buckets with lids. Drill some small holes on sides and bottom, needed for air circulation and drainage. Lids keep out the unwanted unmicroscopic detritivores called house flies. Just toss all the kitchen vegetable waste, add a layer of soil from your yard, and after three months you will have great compost. I have six of these pails so that some are completing the cycle while others are starting with fresh garbage. Do not stir this compost! It won’t smell unless you disturb it before it is all done composting.
Like a shovel in Sonoran soil, I have barely scratched the surface of helping your wildlife garden with natural compost. The recently updated book, “Teaming with Microbes” (By Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis © 2006, Timber Press) covers the topic in depth, in a user-friendly fashion.
Composting is happening all the time in nature. It is a natural action that you want to encourage in your yard for a rich healthy soil. Healthy soil, teaming with microbes is what will help your wild garden grow.
Note Below: It takes an agricultural country to celebrate earthworms on their postage stamps!
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