Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Yet Another essay on Soil

The more I experiment with my gardens, the more I learn how connected we humans are to the Earth. Specifically for this talk is our obvious link to that very thin layer covering the rocky innards of our planet. If the Earth were the size of a beach ball, the layer of soil would resemble a generous layer of paint. So thin, so fragile, and if we are not mindful - so temporary.

It is late September 2010 and my composting program has reached maturity. I have added rich composted material to my gardens for three years running and the results are astounding. Despite the harsh San Antonio climate, I am able to pull ample fruits and veggies from my modest area of land. This year saw our very first peach crop. From a single mature tree and one young tree I put down last fall, we were endowed with several bushels of the tastiest yellow and white peaches one could imagine. Talk about guilt-free eating; completely organic! Tomatoes, onions, beans, peas, and peppers were their usual bumper quantities and this year we added Asian eggplant to the menu.

Now back to the soil. Something I have learned since my last post. STOP TILLING YOUR SOIL TO DEATH!! I will be the first to admit that I was guilty as anyone of over-tilling - always have been. I absolutely excelled at mixing my compost and literally pureeing my plots to ensure aeration, drainage, and all of the customary (and illusionary) benefits of "working" the soil. The truth is; healthy soil will take care of itself. Tilled soil isn't really soil - it's dirt. 40% of the nitrogen resident in soil is wrapped up in the bacteria living there. When you till, many of the bacteria are killed, releasing the nitrogen into the soil. Yes, this gives the plants a short-term 'boost' but that is quickly consumed and until the soil can reestablish itself, the plants have to look elsewhere or deeper for the necessary nitrogen and other nutrients (unless you try to add them via fertilizer). How does this work? Well it seems there are really only two types of roots - Tap roots and feeder roots. The tap root is the larger, main shaft that simply hydrates the plant - it takes in water. The feeder roots on the other hand are responsible for the feeding, the intake of nutrients the plant needs in order to grow and produce. These feeder roots are the small hair-like roots that spread out. At any rate, there is an exchange these smaller roots perform with the bacteria and various organisms in the soil. Without going into the painful details, the plant produces things that the organisms in the soil need and in return, those organisms produce things that the plant needs. Pretty neat huh? When you till the earth, you upset this whole economy and until it gets re-established, the plants and the soil are the worse for it. Stop tilling your soil.

SO - this year I put this into practice. Instead of working the new compost into the soil I only scraped back the mulch layer and added the compost over the top of the undisturbed soil. I have just planted my fall greens into the compost layer with the idea that the new plants will germinate in the rich compost and then reach down into and take hold of actual established soil, meanwhile the compost layer will continue to leech nutrients downward underneath the layer of mulch. Ironically, established soil retains moisture and resists erosion better than the powdery dirt we are conditioned to desire.

So, park the garden tiller and pick up a hoe.

Stay tuned over the next few months and I will let you know how this works out. Until next time - remain a part of nature...Kammy

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Respect The Soil

It has been said that the best definition of agriculture is: Fostering the regrowth of foods you favor. I took this simple meaning to heart and applied it to my method of gardening. The reason I am approaching the subject in this manner is because methods we gardeners use is crucial to our success and often key in our failure. If you don't respect the soil, it will leave you, sometimes literally. If you neglect boundaries of your planting space, Mother Nature will promptly take it back. We don't really own the ground we walk upon and we should treat it as a gift under our care.

Remember: Every plant can't survive everywhere. There is a reason apples are popular up north. There is a reason grapes are grown only in certain areas, and so on. Just because we know a way to force a plant to produce outside it's natural habitat does not make it a good idea and will cause harm and waste in the long run.

As such; the use of chemicals should be kept to a minimum with the goal of reaching zero levels of those additives. Chemical fertilizers for example, actually deplete the soil over time. Excess watering causes salt build-up, poor placement and over-tilling accelerates erosion, and the list goes on. The point of composting and proper soil management is to build your soil from year to year. Strive to make chemicals obsolete in your space.

Be happy to see bugs, worms, spiders, and a host of insects swarming in the mulch. That indicates the soil is healthy. There are ways to naturally repel insects (and animals) from eating your veggies. Don't be so quick to slather on the latest stinky potion you can find at Home Depot. It may kill a few, but it will also kill part of the living community that is your soil. Of course whatever lingers can get into your body as well. If the ants build a huge mound under your tomatoes, poke it day to day and they will move. Make use of loose netting, hot peppers crushed and mixed with water for a good spray that will turn most gnawing critters on their heels. Use the Internet- there's a natural way to do anything when it comes to gardening. It will save you time, money, and heartache.

Don't settle for being just a user of nature, strive to become part of it.



Monday, May 4, 2009


I can't say enough good things about this basic tenet of gardening: if you take from the soil, put something back and do the things necessary that promote healthy and constantly regenerating soil. Remember, soil is an environment of living things. Composting is painfully simple and does not cost anything to start. In fact you should profit from the activity from day-1.

Here's what I do:
  • Start a pile of leaves mixed with grass clippings from the lawn. Call this "your pile".
  • Gather enough stuff to keep the pile at least 3 feet in diameter and about 3 foot high. A sunny locale is fine.
  • Into your pile: add food scraps from the dining table (no meat) and you are off!!
  • Take a large fork (or shovel) and turn your pile every week or so and sprinkle it every few days. Don't soak it, just sprinkle a couple minutes with a hose.
Allow this first mixture to cook for 2 months or so, always adding new material as it comes. At the end of a single season you should have a rich mass of compost to add to the spring garden.

A variation for the more hard-core among us is to add the clippings directly to the existing garden and allow it to compost in the garden as the season goes by. Consider it an organically active mulch. Leave this layer on the garden over the off-season and work it completely into the soil the following spring. Again add another fresh layer once your plants are up and going.

I do a mixture of the two. I have two piles that I use to add bulk to the garden as well as putting on that fresh mulch layer each year. I use my bagging mower to slightly chew up and collect the leaves and mix with the green grass (nitrogen), but you don't have to chew up the leaves first.

The Benefits:

Compost adds organic material to the soil medium that encourages decomposition, release of nutrients, and retains water. So, your soil gets better every year. I live in San Antonio, so the dryness and heat make mulching an absolute necessity and using compost as mulch doubles as a defense against drought.

There you have it. There is much information about composting on the web, so crank up Google and take a spin. BEWARE: you can go out and purchase a $500 mulching kit, but take it from me, the best way to go is always nature's way.

Until Next time.....Kammy