For millions of years plants and palms survived without the help of synthetic fertilizers. Some palms like the Sabal Palmetto grow in very poor soil and yet in the wild this palm can obtain most of its nutrients from organic fertilizers in humus and other decaying matter on the ground. In the wild these palms rarely show nutrient deficiencies but in the cultivated garden around a home, problems become obvious. Around the home,people rake away fallen leaves, bag grass clippings, remove palm leaves, leaving nothing to go back into the soil except plain sand. You can fertilize with 15-5-15, but this leaves out micronutrients, you start adding magnesium to balance the potassium, but other micronutrients deplete without getting getting replaced.

One way to avoid the game of trying to figure out how to balance your micronutrients is a add organic material to your soil. Besides adding long lasting fertility to your soil, adding in quantity can improve the texture of your soil, allowing faster drainage and water acceptance thru clay or fine sugar sands. Some sands when dried out become like a dry sponge, resisting water, you can water for hours and the water just beads off and away from the spot you intended to water. Organic material can act like a sponge, resisting or slowing down the drying out phase during droughts. Since much of it is carbon residues, it behaves somewhat like activated charcoal absorbing fast leeching water soluble nitrates, potassium and magnesium and slowly re-release these nutrients as the plant needs it.

What type materials are there for use as fertilizer? Different materials have different properties and it depends on what you need them for. Manures are a good source of materials, however you generally want this material to have been at least 80% decomposed. Fresh manure can be dangerous when used with plants in large quantities because it is so active with fungi and bacteria. Some of these organisms can assume your palm roots are food too and begin rotting them too. You should age various manures at least 6 months before use when most of the primary decomposing organisms have consumed most of the fresh foods and are killed off by their own waste products. At this stage, the manures are ready for earth worms and other secondary and less harmful bacterial to establish culture in the material. This is also the stage at which fresh manure begins to release nutrients usable by plants. You can also tell when manure is ready for use with plants when it smells like soil with little odor as compared to when, well you know, smelled like shit.

For most of us the practical way to use manures with palms in our yards is to buy nursery bagged manures. These have been rotted and aged, any weed seeds the cow ate have died and rotted, there is no smell with this material and it is ready to be applied. The process of sitting in the hot sun in a plastic bag actually has a tremendous sterilizing effect on the material, killing back most of the germs to an acceptable level for use with a wide variety of seeds.

Different manures contain different amounts of nutrients. Cow manure is a basic and balanced material, however most cows eat grass, grass is rather low with nutrients going in, and weak with nutrients going out. Other manures like hen manure can be stronger since hens eat a richer diet of corn and grains. Meat eating animals are likely to produce the strongest and richest manures. Those lucky enough to gather manures from a circus or zoo from animals like lions and tigers are likely to get a manure rated higher then 10-10-10 in nutrients. Cats also meat eaters have very potent pooh. Dogs being fed meat/grain mixed dog food are also likely to have better then cow manure pooh.
So why not just put a little bit of tiger pooh on top of the ground as a super concentrated organic fertilizer and forget using lots and lots of the cow manure? Well the tiger pooh concept is perhaps better then no organic fertilizer at all, however one of the best nutrients in the mix is the one that all plants will not absorb out of the ground, that is carbon. The plant cannot absorb a molecule until it has been liberated from its carbon component. Natural decomposition is the process that removes the carbon element from an organic molecule, the carbon evaporates as carbon dioxide, the remains is absorbed by the plant where the material will then be re-bonded to another carbon particle in the plant thru the process of photosynthesis. In the meantime, the carbon in the soil aids the plant to a great degree. Decomposition often occurs as fast as the plant needs space to expand its roots, thus providing the roots with “as needed” space as the roots expand and can grow without being compacted/stunted. So you may want to balance the planting/mulching additives with a suitable amount of cheaper less potent manures to provide ample amounts of carbon to the soil.

What about humus? Humus can be as good as manure and sometimes longer lasting. I like to save a great deal of my oak tree leaves. You can also use all yard wastes for humus, however freshly fallen leaves are not necessarily ready to apply in the garden. You can have the same problems of having too fresh of leaves and grass clippings, just like you did with too fresh of manure. Leaves should be rotted down some. For this you need to have some of the correct types of beneficial bacterial to decompose the leaves and some fuel to get it started.

Like adding a piece of prepared cheese to fresh milk will make more of the same cheese, you want to add some of last year’s left over decomposed leaves to your pile of leaves this year. You can also add some manures or one particularly excellent compost accelerator is sewage sludge. Milorganite(sewage sludge) and manures have an active cultures and also fuel some of the action with nitrogen. If you can chop or shred the leaves you can accelerate the compost process by a several months.

We made a mound of shredded leaves. The haystack if you will was mixed with 2 gallons of milorganite and watered. In 2 weeks to the day the haystack has further reduced its size to 1/3 of the size you see now. In 2-4 more weeks this stack will suitable for mulching flowerbeds and will continue decomposing, unshredded leaves would 4 additional months to decompose to this level. You do see some whole leaves that continue to fall from trees on top of the mound.

We shredded leaves at the end of October, aside from a few hole leaves that have fallen on the top, these leaf shreddings, after 4 months, now cannot be distinguished from garden center top soil or cow manure. The compost mound this material was shoveled from had a dozen earth worms in every shovel full. The use of shredding, seeding with milorganite and fertilizers, keeping in a mound that self generates and keeping the compost mound continuously damp, a generous supply of humus can be produced in a short time.

This property here consists of 3/4 of an acre and has 38 large shade trees ranging from 15 to 40 years old. All loose their leaves annually. Yet since I acquired the property, no leaves have been thrown away with the trash or burned over the past 10 years. All of this material has stayed accumulating organic fertility throughout the property. By fertilizing the trees and all grass year round with high potassium and magnesium fertilizers, these materials are richly represented in the leaves that are the source of this recycled humus. The result is large banks of soil have so much heat creation properties of organic material, thousands of BTU’s of naturally generated heat is trapped under the trees during nights of freezing weather, sparing nearly everything under the trees any freeze damage.

Is there ever a time there is too much carbon and not enough “dirt” in the soil? Yes and no, it is easily taken care of, simply add more chemical fertilizers and keep the material watered regularly, it will continue reducing to a point that it will not be “mucky”. I tend to choose a different location each year to lay down the heavy concentrations of material and allow 3 to 4 years to pass before returning to add more. In well draining and able to dry soils, this generally reduces the materials into the material we all desire, that can be considered “top soil”. Chemical nitrate fertilizers and sewage sludges will act at all times to accelerate decomposition until it has reached 98% complete. As for grass clippings, all grass clippings stay in the yard. If you dont think grass clippings are good for the yard, then drive by in January, you will see the greenest grass in Tampa but the real shock is when you realize the St. Augustine and Bahia mix is outgrowing the rye grass. If you must know my secret, the lawn gets one 40 lb bag of milorganite, one 50 lb bag of 15-5-15 lesco lawn food and 2 lbs of 25% magnesium pellets every month for the front yard alone.