Organic matter, what is it and why is it important? Organic matter may only make up a small percentage of soil, but it is a crucial part of having healthy soils for plants. Organic matter is made up of mostly decomposing plant material. This can come from many sources such as leaves as they fall from the trees or even the grass as you mow your lawn.
What does organic matter do for the soil and what are the effects? Once the various leaves, bits of grass, and other plant parts come in contact with the soil's biology, work begins. The various microbes and animals, such as earthworms, begin to consume the fallen plant matter and slowly turn it into a dark rich material called humus. Humus is the ultimate prize in your soil! One could see it as black gold for your garden, lawn, or pastures. Humus and organic matter performs various roles. It helps to retain soil moisture (those who have any outdoor plants can see the benefit of that in the summer!), helps to keep soil light and aerated, helps to insulate the soil from high and low temperatures, and it provides food for the microbes and earthworms who add nutrients to the soil in the process of breaking down the organic matter.
Left: Buckwheat grown as a summer cover crop not only increases soil health but also attracts pollinators with its flowers and various song birds with the seeds it produces. After allowed to seed out, the buck wheat can be incorporated into the soil to be broken down into soil organic matter Right: Wheat planted in a raised bed or garden in fall can latter be pressed down to create a surface mulch that suppresses weed seed germination and helps to retain soil moisture. In the end the wheat will break down into organic matter
Left: This area once could be compared to a sand box. After a few years of cover cropping one can see the increasing health of the soil from the increase in organic matter and soil coverage. Right: The increased organic matter attracted earthworms by the hundreds! Earthworms help the soil by adding nutrients and increasing aeration.
How can you add organic matter to your soil? It is easier than thou think! For those who garden, planting cover crops or growing a top much is simple and can even be a beautiful addition to the surroundings! There are many plants available to use as a cover crop; depending on the species they can bring additional benefits on top of adding organic matter, such as adding nitrogen to the soil and attract beneficial wildlife. To read more on cover crops you can read about few in our last blog post written by Alexis Long. When adding cover crops there are a few options. One easy way to add organic matter is to add leaves(be sure the leaves haven't been sprayed with herbicide) as they drop in the fall to garden rows where they will hold onto soil moisture. There is the method known as green manure where you can simply chop, drop, and till in the cover crop, thereby incorporating the plant material into the soil where is will be broken down by the microbes and earthworms. Another option is to cover mulch the cover crop on top of the soil. To do this the cover crop is simply pressed down on top of the soil in a sheet. The benefit of doing this is the layer of mulch will help to suppress weed seeds from germinating, shade the soil, and hold on to soil moisture - this method works best if you are going to be planting started transplants rather than seeds. A great way to grow a cover mulch is to plant wheat seed into the garden in fall. It is an easy crop to grow and provides a uniform sheet when flattened. When it is time for summer plants, take the garden tool of your choice and flatten the wheat stalks to the ground where they are all laying the in the same direction. Once flattened, spread the flattened wheat apart to access the soil and plant your plant as you would normally. After the plant is in the soil simply cover the exposed soil with the surrounding stubble. Other fall planting options for this method are oats, barley, and rye.
Organic matter not only benefits the plants by adding nutrients and ground cover but it also helps people time and money by having to water and fertilize less, therefore work less and enjoy more!