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Paydirt, Part II: Saving Water (and Money) with Organic Matter


A lot of you already know the secret to good, water-conserving soil: compost.

But there may be a few of you who don’t know that you can cheat.

Oh, you can’t cheat if you want that black, crumbly stuff all gardeners crave; it takes time to make that rich, humusy-smelling substance. Compost like this is the grade A+ soil amendment. It provides nutrients, enzymes, attraction for earthworms, aeration – and it holds water like a charm.

Any organic matter can help your soil do that, though, even if it’s not in the absolute top-notch way completely composted organic matter does. And  a lot of the time, you can scavenge the materials to do it. Which means it’s saving you money, too. (Priced out a load of delivered compost lately?)

If you live in a more rural area, scavenging’s easier, but cities have their own rich supplies.

First, there are the chopped branches and leaves often offered at both city and rural dumps or other sites. After crews clear away branches for power lines, or finish schwoomping up leaves, all that stuff has to go somewhere. In many places, they grind it up in civic grinders and offer it for free. Some places even deliver it.

A few cautions: First, you’d want to be sure you weren’t taking leaves from trees heavily sprayed with pesticides.

And, since it has a lot of woody matter in it, this sort of organic matter is better as mulch. (A friend of mine actually used it for a sort of soft playground surface for her kids.)

Wood takes a while to break down. Some people claim that this changes the acid balance of the soil, or takes up more nitrogen than it offers. I tend to believe the people who say they don’t see much effect from that, and that the value of the organic matter far outweighs any deficits. I feel the same about pine, fir, and cedar needles, other materials that need to stay as a mulch on top until they rot entirely.


If you gather your own leaves, you can pick and choose. In open areas, just go for a spot where there are a bunch of fallen leaves, and start gathering.

Underneath the leaves you will find a darker, moister layer of falling-apart leaves. This is called leaf-mold, and used to be taken into gardens not only for its organic matter, but for its enzymes and mycorrhizal activity, the things that make soil come alive.

Be thoughtful to the trees who are so kindly providing this rich substance: they can spare some of it, but they need it to thrive, too, as does the rest of the plant and fungal community around them. When I gather leaves, I move from spot to spot, and I don’t go all the way down to the soil.

Of course, there are always the leaves from our own gardens, left when the season’s done. All my tulip foliage (after it’s really brown) and dead leaves go into the compost.


And there are the leaves from trees which fall on our own gardens, rotting quietly through the winter, contributing rich, water-saving organic material without any work on our part.


In the city, you might find people who want you to take their leaves – after all, many people pay gardeners to blow or rake or burn their leaves away. Another source of leaves is restaurants. If you can establish a good relationship with a restaurant, and prove yourself reliable in taking away their compost and bringing back buckets, you will have a rich source of leaves. Restaurants that serve a lot of salads or soups are more likely to have leafage, but any place will have some.

Other sources? Horse stables will have plenty of horse manure, which is basically grass or alfalfa held together by other matter, and not at all obnoxious to handle, especially when dry (it’s lighter and easier to haul when it’s dry, too). If you’re willing to shovel it out, the stable owners will often let you have it for free. I’ve also gathered dried horse manure from the fields. Cow manure, too: I’ve found that when cows graze, or are fed alfalfa, their manure is not as hot, especially after it’s been baking in the sun for awhile. You still have to be more careful of it than horse manure, though.

Sometimes feed stores or farms have spoiled hay, hay that’s been out in the rain, and is sold for a pittance. Grass clippings work, but they are so high in nitrogen that they need to be put in a bin so they can burn their heat out. (My grandfather once had me put my arm into one of his triple grass-composting bins. I was shocked at how hot it burned. He proudly showed me the thermometer reading.) You also want to be sure about the provenance of your grass clippings: for some reason, at least in the US, we put our most deadly poisons down where we like our little children to play. Conventional lawn care involves a lot of toxins.

I’m sure there are many more clever places to scavenge organic matter (stuff that isn’t quite, yet, compost).

Wherever you get it, there are a few things you can do with organic matter when you bring it home to the garden.

Of course you can put it in a compost pile and compost it properly, but that isn’t cheating. I’m here to provide you with the easy, cheating ways.

One is to use your organic material as mulch, and let it gradually rot, improving your soil. The barrier of mulch on top is a great way to keep water from evaporating. And the microbial activity of the mulch breaking down feeds your soil, as the mulch gradually turns into lovely, fluffy, composty soil. Soil that holds water just right.

Another method (especially good for soggy stuff like restaurant leavings) is to tuck your organic matter under mulch.

This is the Ruth Stout method, politely called “sheet composting”. (When she first started composting this way, she didn’t hide the garbage under the compost, and concerned friends started wondering if she’d got a screw loose.)

Of course you can’t use the Ruth Stout method unless you have some mulch to begin with. If you used municipal wood chippings, for instance, the mushier vegetable leavings would start to condition your soil immediately for better water retention, while the wood chippings made a barrier, keeping moisture in.

The most labor-intensive method of dealing with compost is, of course, the one that gets the quickest results: tilling it in.  Tilling in requires muscle power and/or machinery, plus being picky about your compostables, so you don’t end of with chunky, hard-to-work soil.

If you have reasonably decent soil, you can also use the compost to build a new bed, using the cardboard method described in the last post.

Whichever method you use,  your soil will hold more water, and get better at holding water (and delivering nutrients) with each passing year.

{ 7 comments… add one }

  • Sylvia (England) June 24, 2010, 4:13 am

    Great post Pomona. All my compost bins are full and there is a lot of weeds and top growth from perennials to find somewhere to put, as soon as I find the time to do the work. Creating a heap somewhere is not an option because the garden is open plan, I need to find a temporary solution. So this post is very useful – gets me thinking.

    One of the best things we bought was a shredder, it will only shred woody material but even a small garden creates quite a lot of this. Perhaps because we need to keep shrubs pruned to size. We use the shredded bark and leaves on internal paths and area’s I haven’t had time to plant yet.

    Best wishes Sylvia (England)

  • Pomona Belvedere June 24, 2010, 8:57 am

    Sylvia, I think using a shredder sounds like brilliant gardening, I love the idea of your making your own path and bare-area material. Lucky you to have your compost bins overflowing! Glad if I’ve provided any inspirations for using your abundance.

  • Dirty Girl Gardening June 24, 2010, 3:10 pm

    I love scavenging for leaves for the compost… but can be a bit time consuming since I’m in an area with lots of evergreens. nice post.

  • Sylvia (England) June 25, 2010, 2:08 am

    Pomona, not only inspiration but I acted on it! I have a small area of lawn that I want to dig up – when I have time! So last night I cut all the Oriental Poppies down and with some weeds put them on the grass. I did add a green plastic sheet over the top weighed down with stones. At the very least I can add this to the compost bins when I have more room, it is well away from other houses so I shouldn’t get any complaints about smells! Yes, I have had complaints about my compost bins but I don’t think it was them that were smelling but you can’t convince people of that.

    The last two posts have been really helpful to me, thank you. I will update you on my new compost area! Best wishes Sylvia

  • Pomona Belvedere June 25, 2010, 11:30 am

    Dirtygirl, I know what you mean about scavenging for leaves in evergreen areas, I’ve done it.

    Sylvia, I’m so happy to have usefully contributed to your project! I’d be curious to know how it works out.

  • lostlandscape (James) June 28, 2010, 9:04 pm

    What beautiful sepia photos with your compost posting! They really have a beautiful sense of the colors of returning to earth. My first batch of compost from the new composter is almost ready to spread in the garden. I’m getting pretty excited to share it with the veggies…

  • Pomona Belvedere June 28, 2010, 10:36 pm

    Thanks James, I’m glad you liked the sepia, too. The first compost of summer! Maybe you should break out the champagne to celebrate.

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