Organic Matter Matters

By Paul James

I love to watch folks at the nursery as they check out just to see what they’ve got in their carts. Sometimes I try to imagine where the conifers or ornamental grasses or whatever else they bought will wind up in their landscape. Mostly I just get excited knowing that every plant that goes out the door will soon be set free from the confines of its pot and given a permanent home.

But I’m more than occasionally disturbed by what I don’t see in customers’ carts, namely soil amendments, a catchall term that refers to any number of different products (usually sold in bags) that contain organic matter. Because without organic matter, you won’t have healthy soil. And without healthy soil, you won’t have healthy plants. That’s just the way it is.

So what is organic matter, and why does it matter so much? Organic matter includes leaves, grass clippings, plant refuse, composted animal manures, agricultural byproducts (such as cotton burrs and alfalfa meal) – pretty much any organic material that decomposes. It matters because it’s the source of food for all the critters that inhabit the soil. As they feed on the organic matter in the soil and leave their deposits behind, they improve the soil’s structure, tilth, water-holding capacity, nutrient content, biological activity, and so on. In other words, they keep the soil alive.

There are lots of ways to add organic matter to soil. Using a mulching mower is a great way to add a steady dose to the lawn, and mulching leaves directly into the lawn in fall works wonders. In flower and vegetable gardens, as well as the lawn, a two-inch topdressing of organic matter in the form of homemade compost, shredded leaves, or a bagged, composted product will in time transform so-so soil into super soil.

So whether you opt for a store-bought, bagged product or your own homemade compost, make the addition of organic matter to your soil a routine – as in once or twice a year -- practice. Your plants will be far healthier as a result, which means they’ll be far less likely to be attacked by pests and diseases, which means you’ll have a better looking garden. And that matters, too.