Building the Soil: Part One

| 7/15/2014 3:24:00 PM

Acorn and ThistleIf you’ve been over to my blog recently, you may have noticed that things have been on the quieter side. I spent the better part of the last week listening to interviews from the Grow Your Own Food Summit, a collection of 34 presentations over seven days. It was intense; five presentations per day, each lasting 40 minutes to an hour. That’s a lot of information to absorb and process! Not to mention the tangential internet searching afterwards ... there were days when I felt like I’d fallen down a rabbit hole. (I still kind of do … but that’s a good thing.)

One of the biggest things I took away from the talks was this recurring theme: the single most important thing we can do as gardeners is to feed our soil. Growing our own food is a close second, if not tied for first place – but they go hand in hand. It’s just not possible to grow nutritious and healthful food, without healthy, living soil.

Chemical fertilizers feed plants, make no mistake. They fall short on feeding the soil, however, and unless you have a soilless garden (such as a hydroponic setup, which is a whole other topic entirely), you’ll eventually deplete the soil of its organic matter. Once that happens, all we’re left with is the grit and rocks, which hold little in the way of nutrition and are easily eroded by wind and water. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s illustrates this concept perfectly.

So how does one manage the organic matter of their soil, exactly? I’m glad you asked. Cold or hot composting, layering (a.k.a. lasagna gardening), mulching and vermicomposting are all easily accessible to the home gardener, and are the foundations to building good soil. Even better is that these all cost less than commercial fertilizers, in the long run. I’ll cover layering, mulching and vermicomposting in another post; composting on its own is a broad enough topic for one day.

The first key to composting is the proper ratio of what are commonly called browns and greens. Brown ingredients are dry, high carbon items: leaves, straw, wood shavings, even shredded newspaper works fine. Greens are your wet, nitrogen-rich ingredients, like kitchen veggie scraps, fresh grass clippings, animal manure, and garden trimmings. For sanitary reasons, avoid putting oils/fats, meat scraps and dog feces into your compost – the average home pile doesn’t get hot enough to handle any potential pathogens. Diseased plants and aggressive weeds should be avoided as well – either throw them away or burn them, if you can.

You’ll want an even amount of browns and greens, to stabilize moisture levels – too many greens, and you get a soggy, stinky mess. Too many browns are also detrimental, drying out the pile and slowing it down. A well-balanced, evenly layered pile will become home to a host of organisms like earthworms, bugs, fungi and bacteria (among others) that will work diligently to transform these “waste” products into the rich, black humus we all know and love.

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