Sunday, April 7, 2013

What lies beneath.

I’m trying to learn about some of the other creatures that inhabit my property along with me -- not my dachshunds or my chickens or bees, but those tiny living things that populate the diverse ecosystems found below the crust of the soil. These billions of protozoa, fungi, bacteria, algae, nematodes, micro-arthropods, earthworms, insects, etc are a micro-community, otherwise know as the soil food web, which work both together and separately to decompose, transform and cycle nutrients as they eat and move through the soil. I am listening to recorded lectures by the soil scientist Dr.  Elaine Ingham about how these creatures transfer and transform my soil, it’s structure and it’s nutrients every evening as I stare into the fire in my fireplace that I light each night to scare off the chill of this cold spring’s evenings.

According to the good doctor, without the billions of bacteria, millions of fungi and protozoa, and the thousands of other critters living under our feet, our soil would be dead. This micro-community, or soil food web, break drown waste into nutrients, transfers nutrients through the soil, makes other nutrients into forms plants can use, and helps protect crops from soil-born pathogens. There are more specific details of soil biology and specifics on what organism does what, when and how at the website for the US Department of Agriculture

As I listen to her explaining the difference between the various soil organisms and how they break down organic compounds, sequester nitrogen and enhance soil aggregation, I envision the teeming life beneath my feet. It is somewhat overwhelming to listen to her describe this invisible kingdom, and a little disheartening to learn that when I add additional nitrogen to the soil such as fertilizer, I am more likely then not, frustrating and sometime even killing these microcritters. It’s especially upsetting since I know I have such poor soil and I very much want to get the right nutrients to all my plants. The lectures tell me that I have to kick my fertilizer habit, and switch to compost and compost teas instead, and that I need to get better at creating soil health by utilizing what’s already in my yard, as opposed to bringing new material in.  

Unfortunately, she has very high expectations for my compost pile, expectations I’m pretty sure I’m not going to be able to meet. She wants my compost to hit certain temperatures that will require significantly more work, and more turning and more attention then I’ve previously been paying to the waste my garden creates. What Elaine Ingham wants me to do is sort of farm this micro-community, and let them do the work of soil transformation. This means no more just shoehorning in another plant and hoping a handful of fertilizer will make up for the lack of balance in my brown.

Dr. Ingham has been researching soil microbiology for over 30 years, having received her PhD in 1981. After teaching Oregon State University from 1986 to 2001, she left to create a soil testing and consulting company called Soil Food web, Inc, and is now working exclusively for Rodale Institute as their chief scientist. Rodale has a mission statement that reads, “Through organic leadership we improve the health and well-being of people and the planet.” It’s an admirable sentiment, and one I want to practice as well, which is why I am trying to follow Elaine’s advice. Digging, turning and tilling the soil are all no nos, as are pesticides and fungicides and all chemical fertilizers, and the trick is that when your soil’s food web is broken it invites pests, disease and nutrient problems, which, in a vicious cycle, we try and solve with the same chemicals that contribute to the problem.

In her own words, she explains, “… if  you destroy the bad guys, you also get rid of the good guys. When we nuke soils and destroy life, what comes back are the bad guys.”

She goes on to explain that the ideal way to restore soil biology is to use compost that has enormous species diversity. She also wants the compost to be made locally, so that its soil biology is similar to the soil on which it is applied, but if I don’t have the microorganisms that she requires to start with, I might have to get a soil innoculant to treat my compost pile which will get the whole process working. It’s sort of fascinating and very overwhelming, but I figure I can take baby steps and see how I do. First, I’m going to try and turn the whole compost pile. If nothing else it’ll be an incredible aerobic workout for me. And possibly for the compost I’m trying to create as well. Next, I’m not going to bring in my bags of fertilizer this year, but am instead going to invest in compost instead. I can’t tell so far in my lecture series if bagged compost is acceptable, but I know that we have a bunch of new composted products at Marders to try and so I’m going to do test patches with all of them. I do know that she’s big on worm casting, so that’s something that I’m going to invest in heavily, and lastly I’m going to have to learn how to make compost tea.


I want to improve my soil, I really do, but I confess that I was hoping for a quick cure the same way I have always hoped that there will someday be a quick and easy way to lose weight. I want to be able to throw something from a bag across the surface of my acreage and have it cure all my dirt’s ills the same way I want to be able to eat white chocolate chip macadamia nut cookies and still fit into my size 4 jeans. Hahahahaha. Like many things in life, I’m learning that improving my soil is not going to be a quick and easy fix, but rather is something that is going to take time, energy, effort and patience.

Paige Patterson is over the cold and has a bunch of hardy primroses on her porch and pea seeds in her pocket both ready to go in the ground the moment she has a spare two seconds.

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