JoAnne Skelly: Build up your soil

I have often written about my friend Laura’s fantastic gardens. She has always had horses and chickens. Then, also having a tractor, she was able to turn and aerate large piles — all the ingredients and tools for outstanding compost.

Laura moved this year and her new property is bare ground. While they are having a house built, she has already started a garden and landscape. She recently told me the soil there is really sandy with little organic matter.

Being quite the knowledgeable gardener, she knew the addition of organic matter was necessary to ensure the sandy soil would hold water more efficiently and supply more nutrients to her plants. She added composted manure mixed with wood shavings into the soil and put on a bale of Timothy hay as mulch. She reported “Whatever it is, the roses and the tomatoes are loving it!”

Since she doesn’t have horses or chickens at this time and very little green material to add to a compost pile, she had to purchase these materials. She was amusingly appalled stating “I had to BUY horse poop!! ME!!” (The capitals and exclamation points are hers.) Here she is, my horse-owning friend of almost 30 years, buying what she has always had around in abundance.

Organic matter includes plant and animal materials (manure) that are alive, dead, or in some stage of decomposition.

The material we think of as dead (e.g. brown, dried up leaves) is teeming with microbial life (University of Maryland), which is beneficial to plants. Organic matter includes grass clippings, manure, leaves, kitchen scraps, hay (green or brown), and wood shavings work best when composted before use.

Organic matter has many benefits including, improving water infiltration and soil aeration, reducing runoff, and improving water-holding capacity. It increases a soil’s ability to hold onto and supply, over time, essential nutrients such as calcium, magnesium and potassium. It also accelerates decomposition of soil minerals over time, making the nutrients in the minerals available for plant uptake.

Organic matter has biological benefits as well, such as providing food for the living organisms in the soil and enhancing soil microbial biodiversity and activity, which can help in the suppression of diseases and pests.

It also enhances pore space through the actions of soil microorganisms. This helps to increase infiltration and reduce runoff (Cornell University).

Feed your soil with organic matter and your plants will thrive.

For detailed information:

JoAnne Skelly is Associate Professor & Extension Educator Emerita, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension. Email


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