Election Section

The Gardener’s Guide: Muck is good for everything

By Lee Reich, The Associated Press
Friday November 30, 2001

Muck has some bad connotations, but it’s really wonderful stuff. Plant roots revel in this fluffy material, and the result is dazzling flowers, luscious fruits and cushiony, green lawns. Other words for muck are “humus” and “organic matter.” Compost is a kind of muck. 

With leaves falling from trees, and gardens shutting down for the winter, now is the best time of year for mucking around. Materials that can become muck include old tomato and marigold plants, weeds, autumn leaves, kitchen waste and, if available, horse manure. Many organic materials are available, especially now, and they all can be transformed into muck or humus or compost, or whatever you want to call it. Anything that is or was living is suitable. 

No matter what your soil, the more muck the merrier. Muck loosens up clays so they get more air, and helps sands hold water. It has microorganisms that kill plant pathogens, and is a storehouse of nutrients. 

Gathering raw materials for making muck is good for the environment. In so doing, you ease the burden at the landfill, and you nourish your plants with food that, unlike synthetic fertilizers, does not consume petrochemicals in their manufacture. Muck releases nutrients slowly into the soil and clings to nutrients that would otherwise leach, thus lessening the chance for groundwater pollution. 

So what can you do with all those piles of leaves and old plants once you have them? 

You could just spread everything out on top of the ground in your vegetable and flower beds, and around the bases of trees and shrubs. This fluffy layer enriches the soil as it decomposes as well as insulates it. 

If you don’t like the look of all that stuff lying on top of the ground, dig it into the soil. By spring, most of it will have decayed into dark, brown muck. No need to till the soil up finely; just leave it rough, letting freezing and thawing in the coming months break apart the large clods. Come spring, just tickle the surface with a rake to prepare your seedbed (a benign form of muckraking). 

A third alternative is to compost all this material. A bin, correct moisture, and a good balance of ingredients are ideal, but even if you do nothing more than pile these materials together, they will eventually turn to compost. 

Over time, cultivated soils naturally lose organic matter, so mucking around should be part of your fall garden ritual every year.