Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Thinking Like a Carrot

Hans Jenny is credited with the statement that there is often more life below and within the soil than there is above it, including Homo sapiens. Soil is the medium of the art of growing vegetables. As I reflect on the three growing seasons I've spent on my little half-acre, I recall the first swing I took of my pulaski into the rocky soil I would make my garden. It was frightening. I've long been aware of the value of good soil, composting and maintaining a balance of organisms and nutrients in the soil. I knew this ground was going to take some work. It was gravelly and rocky at the same time. I had to remove piles of vegetation that prefer poor, acid soils. It was wet or dry, with not much spongy organic matter to hold moisture at an ideal level.

Elliot Coleman, one of America's authorities on organic farming, emphasizes soil fertility as any wise grower does. But he also emphasizes using resources within a farm rather than importing them. This principle appeals to me because of its efficiency. Spending money on rotting organic waste seems counter-intuitive, especially when most rural homes are surrounded by one such renewable resource: lawn. We have at least 3 acres of mowed lawn. (We reduced our lawn by more than half when we moved in.) I put a bag on the back of the push mower to collect the leaf and grass clippings. Sometimes the harvest I will get from mowing the lawn is the only thing that gets me out there to fire up the Husky mower. The grass clippings serve as mulch and compost. The leaves add fabulous organic matter to the mix. Of course, the chicken manure and bedding play an important role in soil fertility, but it does need a bit of time to compost. It's very rich and some plants don't like that. So, I tend to grow heavy feeders like squash in a bed to which composted chicken bedding has been added. Then, of course, there are all of the weeds we pull and food scraps to add to the compost.

I have imported some fertility. We lucked out and got a load of rich, black soil from a friend. I also loaded up the truck with alpaca poop last year after a neighbor offered. But I really don't need to do much of that.

After 3 years, the soil here is amazing. I'm still learning a few things: don't put the compost pile too close to the garden if you want to reduce potato beetle attacks. Some harmful fungi can thrive in a slow compost pile. In the future, the compost pile will not be right next door to the vegetables. I'll haul it in to reduce some of the pest attacks I experienced this year. And, I still need to solve the disgusting problem of root maggots. I have learned to rotate crops and it seems to be giving the plants a boost when I do it right.

As I take a break from gardening, I'll do my own knowledge composting by reading some material on soil fertility and pest management.

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