Grow Your Soil First
Spencer Bath Bath Garden Center Coloradoan Online, May 2, 2014 The consecutive days of unrelenting blustery, windy weather can wreak havoc on soil left bare, without the protection of vegetation or mulch. Wind is a powerfully erosive force, which will move vast amounts of soil if it is not bound with vegetation, mulch, roots, mycorrhizae and other natural binders. Mother Nature jealously guards her resources, precious as they are. And so should we, by employing practices accentuating the natural ecosystems that help bind soil particles, hold and store water, improve soil respiration and, over time, build and improve biological activity, fertility and tilth. Essentially, we should focus on growing soil first. You may be thinking that our soil won’t go anywhere, being the brick-like clay that it is. However, soil that is not held in place with carbon compounds, organic matter and biology will readily deplete with the relentless forces of water and wind. When the native prairie grasses are turned or removed, the potential for erosion is significantly compounded. Though you might think erosion is not a concern in a small backyard garden, it is important in that the same practices that secure the soil in commercial agriculture, also help you produce the healthiest possible produce at home. The two goals are inextricably linked, so how do we go about “soil security” and growing the most nutritious, best tasting produce with the longest shelf life?
Organic practice is centered on carbon, the basis for biological life and sometimes known as “high carbon farming.” Increasing organic matter (carbon) in soil is accomplished with the addition of materials such as compost, cover crops, humates, green manure, biochar and mulches. Increasing organic matter is the key to building healthy, living soil. Organic matter carries with it biological activity and energy potential. Once incorporated into the soil, it feeds and sustains soil biology, and in turn, the plants we lovingly tend. With the breakdown of organic matter by bacteria and mycorrhizae, nutrients are released to plants. Microbial digestion of organic matter releases carbon dioxide which is then taken in by plant leaves, the basis for photosynthesis. Plants use carbon dioxide and nutrients to build other carbon compounds, some realized as the fruit we eat, and others in the form of sugars to be pushed back down the roots to feed even more micro-organisms. Aerobic bacteria function as the lungs of the soil by pulling oxygen into the soil which is necessary for healthy plant roots, this is soil respiration. In addition, the metabolic process of trillions upon trillions of microbes eating, breathing, multiplying, excreting and expiring is essentially what fuels soil and plant health, and for these multitudinous functions, they rely on carbon. Work to increase your organic matter to 7 percent to 10 percent, which can be determined by a lab soil test. When adding organic matter to soil, quality is priority. Because high quality compost is difficult to find, I encourage all gardeners to begin to learn the art of backyard composting, so you know exactly what is going in to your garden. Animal manure compost are the most widely available and inexpensive, but are typically high in salts. Use these sparingly. Vegetable-, mushroom- and leaf-based composts are excellent due to the abundance of beneficial fungus and low salt content. Ask questions and come to know sources of what you add to your garden. Spencer Bath of Fort Collins can be found at Bath Garden Center and Agri-charge.com.