Around F.C.

Garden Time: Shoveling Brown Gets the Green

No, I am not talking about office politics or lobbying in Washington, I am talking about soil improvement. Healthy soil equals healthy plants. The best way to have healthy soil, and thus a healthy garden, is to use organic materials such as compost to enrich the soil, not chemical fertilizers.

First let me define what I mean by organic. Organic, means anything found in healthy soil, such as decomposed plant matter. The term inorganic, for the purpose of this article, are soil amendments made of chemicals that are derived from forms other than living things.

Here is a quick lesson on plant fertilizers. Plants need nitrogen (N), phosphorous (P) and potassium (K), to grow and produce fruit, plus other trace minerals. When buying fertilizers you will see three numbers on the bag that are written 5-10-5. That is 5% N-10%P and 5% K. Some have other ratios depending on what is needed. The fertilizer bag will tell you what it is for and how to use it.

So you may ask, what difference does it make to the plant where the nitrogen comes from? Why not grab a box of a popular brand at the grocery store and throw it on your garden? Or spread it all over the lawn, according to the instructions on the enormous bag of fertilizer you just bought at the big box store (not to mention the pesticides and herbicides)?

Here are several reasons why using compost and organic fertilizers (derived from organic matter) instead of the inorganic fertilizers is best. First, we should be cultivating the soil and then the plants. A plant cannot absorb nitrogen or other nutrients efficiently unless there are organisms present in the soil. The use of only inorganic fertilizers will eventually leave the soil without these organisms and unless they are replaced with more organic matter to feed the soil organisms, the soil will die.

Second, if you do not apply chemical fertilizers carefully, they can be overused, thus adding too much to the soil. When that happens the plants may actually die off from too much of one nutrient, or at the very least, the excess NKP will be washed into the watershed where it pollutes the waterways. While one can add too much fertilizer (even the organically derived kind) one cannot add too much compost, because it is basically rich, living soil.

Third, inorganic fertilizers cost a lot of money because they must be used at a higher and higher rate as they deplete the soil of its organisms. One can make one’s own compost and that will cost you almost nothing. Or you can get free compost from Fairfax County at their composting department, 12000 Government Center Parkway, Fairfax, VA 22035-0001, (703) 324-5052. Call first, they have several spots around the county where compost is sometimes available. The Virginia Cooperative Extension will help you learn about making your own compost, at, or read my blog at Even purchasing bags of compost will still cost less in the long run because you will be cultivating the soil and keeping it healthy for generations to come. Shoveling the brown stuff really can save and make the green!


Ruth Kling is a resident of Falls Church. Got gardening questions? Check out Ruth’s Garden Blog at