Build rich soil from waste products
by Ellen Goff
The person who first said "bloom where you're planted" didn't live in the Southeastern United States. Down the coastal plain and across Florida, slippery sand is the dominant characteristic where soils tend to be alkaline. Inland and northward, the Piedmont region is famous for its red, dense clay, which is primarily acidic.
To transform native ground into divine dirt means knowing what to add, when and how much. Many soil additives come from animal manure and using them effectively can complete the sustainability cycle and help the environment. Manures and how they work are extensions of the natural process of renewal and rejuvenation in nature.
Organic manure is the decaying material from a plant or animal source: familiar barnyard animal manure, exotic bat guano or worm castings, common seaweed picked up from the beach, ground and processed oyster shells from seafood houses, and sludge or biosolids from sewage treatment plants.
Compost — decaying plant material — is also considered a manure. All these materials are known as slow release fertilizers because they take time to break down into substances that plants can use, at a rate they can absorb them. That's why you apply them less often.
The first time I used fresh horse manure from a farm, my garden exploded with growth. In fact, I burned a number of plants with the stuff, the microbe activity in it was so intense. But its amazing energy lasted only a month or so, when afterward a crop of clover appeared everywhere the manure had been spread. Lessons learned: allow animal manure to age or rot for several months before use and expect to find pasture grasses where none had been before.
An innovative source of manure in the future will come from the swine industry. North Carolina is second only to Iowa in hog production. The open lagoons that treat farm waste are environmentally unsound. Professors from North Carolina State University are evaluating a number of alternative technologies to address the problem.
One system that has received conditional approval uses recycled water to treat the entire farm waste stream. The waste is put through a series of processes in large tanks, and then nutrient concentrations are lowered to protect the environment. The finished solid manure is distributed as a soil amendment and fertilizer.
Fertile soil starts with a soil test. Directions on how to administer a test can be found on your county's Cooperative Extension website. Locate yours through csrees.usda.gov/Extension/index.html.
Without testing, you are throwing away money on services you don't need, products you shouldn't use, polluting the environment and replacing plants that have died in the process. Once you know the condition of your soil and what it might be lacking, you can determine the materials, including organic manure, to be added and in appropriate amounts.
Waste — every living organism produces it. We need to figure out how to manage the ever-increasing amounts of it and find new, sustainable ways to close the cycle.
Ellen Goff is a freelance horticulture writer and photographer. She's passionate about plants, water quality and protecting the environment. Aside from working with words and pictures, she stays busy with her home landscape and its inhabitants along the shores of Lake Wylie, S.C.