An organic farmer I knew when we lived in Illinois said when you leave the organic matter, such as wheat straw, stalks, etc in the soil rather than burning it, the ground stays moist longer.
CORRECTION!!! Last week I gave as one of my cold remedies ½ cup of baking soda in a glass of warm water! This is NOT RIGHT and I hope no one has tried it. It is a half TEASPOON of baking soda. (This was my mistake, not the Sun-Times'). Sorry. This extremely hot dry summer was discouraging for most gardeners. Since we know we will have hot dry weather next summer, maybe there is something we can do to prepare so that gardens will thrive. Some of the practices of most modern farmers and gardeners actually cause drought conditions to do more harm. Nature has lessons to teach us. An organic farmer I knew when we lived in Illinois said when you leave the organic matter, such as wheat straw, stalks, etc in the soil rather than burning it, the ground stays moist longer. A landscaper told my grandson that grass clippings should be left on lawns because they not only provide nourishment for the grass; they act as mulch keeping moisture in the soil. Ruth Stout, when observing what happens in the woods, decided that nature mulches with leaves, branches and all kinds of organic matter. Perhaps that is why most trees survive drastic drought conditions. My dad was a farmer before the days of chemical farming and irrigation systems. He said over-watering; especially early in the season causes plants to develop shallow roots. When the dry hot weather hits, the plants can't survive. In those days, we had geese in cotton fields. They pulled grass out by the roots and ate it. Grass tends to outlive other plants during the dry hot weather, if left to its own accord. As for gardening, building and maintaining a compost pile is the surest easiest way to become a better gardener, according to the article, “All about composting” found on the Gardener's Supply web page. Not only will you be producing the best possible food for your garden, but by watching leaves, eggshells, orange rinds, grass clippings, etc become transformed into rich compost filled with earthworms and other soil creatures, you'll be learning what healthy soil is all about. Ruth Stout was all about composting and mulching. Her book, How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back sounded good to me. I decided to give it a try for my first gardening venture with the goal of growing some healthful vegetables that contained no pesticides or other poisonous chemicals. My organic farmer friend said insects attack plants that are weak. The secret is healthy soil. Several years ago, I started throwing scraps of plant origin from the kitchen into a flower bed. Nature added some leaves and I persistently dumped kitchen scraps in this spot. This year a friend and I decided to grow some Tuscan kale which Dr. Andrew Weil uses for delicious kale salad. I planted mine in the flower bed containing years of decomposed plant matter. My friend had no such place for hers. Her kale grew less than a foot high and produced very little. Mine, planted the same week, is 4 to 5 feet tall and is still producing delicious and the most nutritious food on earth. On the south side of the house, I am hopeful it will survive the winter, with a little protection in the coldest weather. This is the easiest to grow, best food I have ever seen produced on such a small area. The difference in hers and mine—kitchen scraps! She bought “organic” fertilizer for hers. According to Gardeners' Supply, composting can be simple or scientific. There are composting formulas, to which I pay no attention. Since I was ignorant on the subject, not a scientific minded person, and don't particularly like to “work the soil” I want to keep it simple. All plant matter eventually decomposes, no matter how you combine it. For a first timer, I am having some good, wholesome food from the garden. I simply bury watermelon rinds in a pile of compost from the city. Like many others, I fell into the trap of buying a totally unnecessary rotary composter into which I toss vegetable matter and some leaves, grass clippings, etc. I mulched the garden with bales of poison free wheat straw and I plan to do more of that this fall so it will decompose by spring. Gardeners' Supply gives these reasons for composting and mulching: No matter what the type of soil, compost improves its structure. It provides a balanced source of plant nutrients. No commercial fertilizer, even one that is totally organic, provides the full spectrum of nutrients that you get with compost. The nutrients are available gradually, as your plants need them. Compost stimulates beneficial organisms-enzymes, vitamins, and natural antibiotics present in compost help prevent many soil pathogens from harming your plants. Earthworms and other macro-organisms tunnel through your soil, opening up passageways for air and water to reach your plants' roots. Even experienced gardeners often have imperfect soil. Adding compost moderates pH and fertility problems. You can't over-apply it. Plants use exactly what they need, when they need it. It is doubtful you can ever have enough compost. It is perfect to put into a hole before setting out a plant, to spread around when you are creating a new garden, seeding a lawn area, or planting a tree. It can be sprinkled around plants during the growing season or used as mulch around all plants. I feel good about putting nutrients back where they belong; in the soil rather than the water supply or landfill. (Janice Norris lives in Heber Springs, has a B.S. in home economics from Murray State University, taught home economics, owned and operated health food stores in Illinois and Heber Springs, has taught numerous health and nutrition classes, and wrote a weekly newspaper column in Illinois for 15 years. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)