My Mother’s Gardening Secret

My mother was widely considered to always have the best garden for miles around, for as long as I can remember. When asked what her secret was, she would always tell people, “The secret is in the soil.”

That’s all.

Just, “The secret is in the soil.”

Some would then ask her if she made compost to boost her soil. “No, too much work and I don’t need to.”

Most people have heard of compost, and many have tried it, and/or are currently doing it.

Composting has many advantages for both you and the world.

Compost can turn ANY soil into a much more fertile, appropriately draining (yes, it helps hold moisture in sandy soil and improves drainage of clay soil), pH balanced (yes, it raises the pH of acid soil and lowers alkalinity), plant supporting community.

Composting saves space in the landfills and reduces carbon emissions.

Composting saves money on fertilizer and other expensive garden additives.


As my mother said, composting requires some time and attention, as well as the right conditions (heat, moisture, oxygen, appropriate balance of types of materials, and just plain TIME) to work well.

So, what was my mother’s secret and what does it have to do with compost?

Mom let the garden make it’s own compost.

Every morning she went out to the garden with a can full of kitchen scraps from the previous day and coffee grounds from the morning’s breakfast.

She then went to her special marker, hoe and scraps in hand, and hollowed out a small trench.

The scraps went into the trench and the dirt went right back over the scraps.

Then the marker was moved to where the trench ended, telling her where to start the next days “deposit” in the super garden.

Over the course of the summer, those scraps were broken down by worms, bugs, soil microbes, fungi, and the occasional chicken into wonderful rich black soil that would grow pretty much anything without having to add any fertilizer of any kind.

Burying the kitchen waste kept it out of sight, kept the flies out of it, and kept it from smelling bad.

The regular watering of the garden kept it sufficiently moist to help it break down quickly and well.

Most garden waste met the same fate, unless it was really large.

The big stuff went to the chickens to work over first.

Corn and sun flower stalks got their own special treatment, but that’s another subject for another day.

If this kind of non-composting composting appeals to you, here is a list of 14 things you can bury in your garden:

1. Kitchen waste, but go easy on the citrus unless you have very alkaline soil. This includes vegetable scraps, grains, dairy, eggs, fruits, and even small amounts of meat – as long as you don’t need to worry about a dog digging it up. If your garden could use a quick pick-me-up, put those scraps in sturdy blender with enough water to make a thin liquid. Blend, and pour on the garden as a side dressing around plants or along the sides of the rows, then water it in.

2. Garden waste such as torn leaves and spent plants (but not diseased ones – they should be burned or sent to the dump). Did you know that burying a crop of marigolds in your garden can help eliminate nematodes? And garden waste adds back a lot of organic matter to build good soil.

3. Yard waste that has been cut or broken up into smallish bits. This includes grass (best used as a mulch over the top of your garden paths) leaves in the fall (but run them through the lawn mower first), small sticks, trimmings from rose bushes and similar. Even large tree branches and logs can be used, but need to either be chopped into small bits or used as part of a huglekulture bed (more on that later – am I bad for saying that?)

4. Eggs – these get special mention because we all know they are golden nuggets of nutrition for people, but did you know that the same applies for your garden? Dig a hole or trench 4-6 inches deep, put raw or boiled eggs in it, then smash the eggs and break them up a bit. They are high in calcium (think tomatoes), phosphorus, and nitrogen. Traditionally, they have been cheaper, pound for pound, than fertilizer. With the way grocery prices are going right now, that might not be true any longer, but it will always be a good use for any old eggs you might have.

5. Coffee grounds and tea bags/leaves, after use, also get special mention because their ability to feed worms. Used tea leaves have almost twice as much nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium as coffee grounds, in addition to calcium, iron, magnesium, and zinc – all of which are good for your garden. The liquid coffee and tea should be strongly diluted because they tend to be too acidic for use on a garden as they come.

6. Fish tank water and cleanings are wonderful for gardens if you keep fish.

7. Shellfish waste. Those shrimp and crab and clam shells make excellent garden boosters. They should be broken up into small pieces first, but they are excellent mineral boosters.

8. Animal waste, i.e. manure is a time-honored garden booster, but, with the exception of small amounts of rabbit manure, it should be composted for several months before applying to the garden, or, apply it fresh, then wait several months to plant. For example, spread fresh manure in the fall, then plant in the spring. Rabbit manure is much lower in nitrogen than any other animal waste I am aware of and can be applied directly in small amounts. Even with bunny bubbles (rabbit manure) though, a little is good, but a lot can still burn your plants. Chicken manure is probably the hottest manure going and really needs at least 6 months to age before using it on or around plants.

9. Dead animals can also be buried in your garden. When I have a chicken, rabbit, cat, or dog die, if it’s spring, they get “planted” in the garden where the plant roots can absorb the nutrients from the body to give you a bumper crop of veggies. In the summer, I try to find a spot where I want a new tree or bush, then bury the body there.

10. Old cotton (no synthetics) clothing, rags, and towels can be buried in the garden to compost. Just be sure to remove any buttons, snaps, zippers, elastic and such since these won’t break down as well. I would recommend washing them first, and don’t put oily rags into the garden. Nope. Not a good plan! Seriously, thin cotton will generally break down in a garden within a year. Thicker stuff will need to be shredded or given more time.

11. Rancid powdered milk and nuts can go into the garden as well, but spread thinly and well watered in. Another use for rancid powdered milk is to make cheese, but, again, that’s another topic, and completely off target for an article on gardening.

12. Ashes from a fireplace can be added to acidic soil to raise the alkalinity, but, if you have alkaline soil, adding ash is not recommended, unless maybe it’s balanced out with a lot of citrus waste.

13. If you have animals giving birth, the placenta or afterbirth can be a fabulous addition to the garden so long as it’s buried deep enough to not attract any neighboring dogs.

14. Worms are a garden’s best friend, next to appropriate amounts of water and sunlight. Yes, I do raise my own worms and add them to my garden. It’s called vermiculture, if you’re interested, and that’s another topic for another day.

Not only did I see this “secret” work in my mother’s garden so many years ago, but I’ve used it myself for the 40+ years I’ve been gardening on my own. It works, and it’s easy.

One possible bonus – I’ve heard that both human and pet hair/fur can be added to a garden, but I have not tried either one in my garden. I do know that hair is generally very slow to break down so if you want to try this, I would suggest starting small and in an area you can easily identify and track the results.

Happy gardening, and here’s to your successful “secret” garden boosting!

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