Out this morning at dawn before the boys woke up, watering, planting, spreading straw. Such rare moments these days, quiet time by myself in the garden. Moments like that I can forget about everything else, set aside the busyness, not have to keep one ear and eye open for the kid and dog and other critters, actually lose myself in the work of my hands and my thoughts . . . what a gift.
This morning as I spread the straw I got thinking about one of the simplest, but most profound shifts in our thinking about growing food since we began our inquiry into organic gardening.
For me, the idea that we should feed the soil instead of the plants completely changed my outlook and actions in the garden. Industrial / conventional agriculture largely views the soil merely as something to hold the roots, not as an integral component, a living being. Agri-industry spends most of its time depleting soil, it certainly doesn’t seem too concerned about nourishing it.
I often think we’ll one day look at this attitude towards soil the same way we look at the “flower pot” theory of human reproduction. (There was a time when it was believed that the woman contributed nothing to the equation, she was simply the “flower pot” for the man’s seed. Nice, hey?)
Soil is our most precious resource and we are losing it by the ton. In North America, soil is lost at a rate of 5 to 10 TONS PER ACRE every year. Take into consideration that it can take 1000 years for nature to create just one inch of topsoil and you realize how staggering this is. What soil remains to us is being poisoned under the guise of saving it. Industrial “no-till” agriculture relies heavily on herbicides to be effective. We are Solomon splitting the baby and calling it success.
If you are interested in soil loss and what we can do about it, I would suggest checking out Wes Jackson and the Land Institute. His recent book Consulting the Genius of the Place is an eye opening account of this history of soil loss and what he believes can be done about it.
Here’s what I do to feed my soil:
Mulch, mulch and mulch some more.
Look at nature and you’ll see she abhors bare earth. It just isn’t done. Any place that is bare is quickly colonized by the hardiest pioneers – weeds. Most everywhere else you’ll see a healthy layer of organic matter covering the ground, either plants or leaf litter and the like. Otherwise, it’s usually what we call a desert.
Just laying down mulch will give the systems in the soil a chance to get to work. It retains necessary moisture, provides homes for critters, protects the soil from hard rain or punishing sun. I couldn’t believe the difference our first year just laying down fallen leaves on the soil. By the end of the winter it was just teaming with life.
Some mulch ideas:
- Fallen leaves, either run through the lawnmower or not. Chopped ones will decompose in place, un-chopped ones can be put on the compost at the end of the season.
- Straw – my personal favourite because it decomposes well over winter and when turned in adds beautiful structure and air to the soil.
- Waste coffee husks. If you have an organic coffee roaster near you, see if they’ll give you their waste. These won’t break down easily like straw, but they’ll serve the purpose, and heck, they’re free! I have even been known to mulch my urban blueberry plants with actual coffee grounds. Nothing gets you looks like taking the skytrain in a business suit with 20+ pounds of used coffee. At least I smelled good!
- Sheet mulching or green manures . . . more on those next.
Green manure can be used as a mulch, or as a means of resting and feeding your soil. They are also an important means of preserving the soil you are caring so hard for during dry, windy times or hard winter rains, when you might lose that precious stuff to erosion.
The great thing about green manures is they serve so many purposes at once, and can be tailored to your soil’s specific needs.
Soil low on organic matter? Try rye or oats. Planted a heavy feeding crop previously? Use a nitrogen fixer like clover.
There is lots of research out there being done by creative farmers, determining new ways to use green manures and stack functions. I have read about farmers grazing animals on them before letting them take off and grow, harvesting the seeds of rye or oats and then turning in the remainder, even not turning it in at all, simply cutting or “crimping” the manure, leaving it to die back and then planting right into it again, the dead manure functioning as a mulch for the next crop.
I like a mix of oats and clover. It’s my idea of a complete meal for my soil. Frankly, you can pretty much never have TOO much organic matter, and planting nitrogen fixing plants is a lot different than pouring soluble nitrogen fertilizer on your soil. It isn’t going to run away to pollute ground water at the first sign of rain. Also, the bees love the clover, so it’s win-win.
Sheet mulching is a great way to feed your soil, especially if you’re starting a new bed. Basically, you’re composting in place. It is easy-peasy. Learn how to sheet mulch here.
Last but not least, compost. Compost is probably the first thing most people think of when they think of feeding their garden organically. In my mind, if you really want to do the compost thing seriously, you have to get Eliot Coleman’s The New Organic Grower. This guy is the king of compost. Seriously.
Compost is pretty much the perfect food for your soil, but it takes some work, attention and know-how. You can make just-fine compost without too much trouble or knowledge, but if you really want results, it’s worthwhile to do a little reading.
The best thing about compost is it is already alive and teaming with all the amazing creatures and bacteria and everything you need to give lifeless, dead soil a kickstart to vitality.
Compost Do’s and Don’ts
- DO keep it damp like a rung-out sponge.
- DON’T let it get hit by hard rain or hot sun.
- DO use a mix of green and brown material (think green lawn clippings vs. dried leaves) and keep the ratio at about 2:1.
- DO make the pile at least 3’x3’x3′.
- DO ensure good air circulation. Turn your compost more often and it will be ready sooner.
- DON’T compost meat or fats, unless you’re using the Bokashi method first, and do this composting separately.
- DO add manure, litter from the chicken coop, spent horse bedding . . . just be aware what the animals were eating / being given by way of medication. Manure from organically raised animals, preferably your own, is best.
- DO try to use small pieces of material. Keep in mind that you’ll want a nice fine tilth at the end. Some things just won’t break down soon enough. Avacado peels, I’m looking at you.
- DON’T add weeds that have gone to seed, or diseased plant material.
- DO put it someplace convenient! Make it easy for yourself!
Glacial Rock Dust, Greensand, Kelp and other treats for your soil
Once you get going, and see the results of feeding your soil, you’ll be eager to try more. Glacial rock dust, kelp and greensand can all help to provide your soil with micronutrients and minerals that will be an absolute boon to your soil’s overall health.
What’s good for your soil is good for your veggies, and what’s good for your veggies is good for you.
“Two thirds water, what do we really need? Sun, showers, soil and seed . . .” – Sarah Harmer