Since just even looking out the window means feeling cold and wet at the moment, I will just share a little snapshot from how it looked yesterday afternoon, and then move on to another subject.
SOIL is the Topic!
Dare I say, without soil, there would simply be no life. It is one of our most important natural resources alongside air and water. And in the same time, without life, the soil would by definition not even exist.
The definition (according to Wikipedia) of soil is: “Soil is a mixture of organic matter, minerals, gases, liquids, and organisms that together support life.”
Just to remind us, here are a few things that the soil does:
- It is a medium for growing plant life.
- Soil absorbs, releases, holds and filters water.
- The soil holds and releases nutriments by processing recycled material from dead organic matter.
- Soil exchanges with the atmosphere by emitting and absorbing gases like carbon oxide and methane (have a look at this blog post for some information about how this makes your garden important in inhibiting climate change).
- The soil contains “hard matter” like mountain rock, and thereby provides minerals.
- It is a stabilizer of climate since it stocks the warmth of the day, which is then released by night.
- Besides carrying animals and humans at its surface, the soil is also home to a huge amount of life living IN it.
Connecting this to our gardens it is not hard to understand why pesticides and chemical treatments don’t belong in the context. But many still have a little of a hard time seeing what it says about some other parts of the picture. Let me give an example…
We recently helped to prepare the planting season for a couple with a garden consisting in about ten raised beds for vegetable, and a beautiful 15 m2 greenhouse (in real glass). Since about ten years they have mainly grown tomatoes in the greenhouse, and in the beginning they were really happy with the fact that their tomatoes developed so well in the greenhouse. They didn’t catch the disease that sometimes attained the outside tomatoes. With time they noticed that this didn’t work any more though. The tomatoes inside were more often sick than the outside ones, and it seems like the raised garden beds needed to have the earth changed every two years to work well. Of course – this is huge work, and for someone with a pleasure garden it removes a lot of just that – the pleasure.
Visiting their greenhouse we could see dirt, not soil. Dirt has a pale colour, it is dusty and it contains little life. The striking proof – not a single weed! It was really, really hot inside even a spring day like this. The earth was dry. No chance that microorganisms or funghi could live here.
What had happened here? Well, coming out of winter, the greenhouse had been abandoned since last season. The earth had not received a single drop of water since. Many people with a fixed installation don’t think about watering their empty greenhouse soil in winter, but it is really important. Once a month is enough. Hey, it’s not empty just because YOU didn’t plant anything! Microorganisms who work so hard for a healthy balanced soil still lives there, and even weeds are good signs saying that the environment is life friendly.
Moreover, all organic material had been carefully removed at the end of the growing season, leaving nothing at all to worms and the other inhabitants of the earth to feed on. Consequently, neither was there anything to protect the surface of the soil from the harsh heat that occurs even in spring in a closed greenhouse.
To restore the balance we started by opening the greenhouse as much as possible and with an overall clean. We gently aired the earth with a fork. Then we invited life back in. We brought manure, compost, layers of leaves, and started to create a lasagne. Then we toped off with an infusion of comfrey and lots of water.
As for the raised garden beds things where looking better, there were weeds and humidity! Digging in a bit we noticed a lack of worms and any abundant signs of life though. Here’s an example of what happens when you only take, and forget to give back to the soil.
I nature this giving and receiving cycle is everlasting, and everybody contributes with their specific task. Plants grow, they live, they flower, they give fruit, they drop their leaves, or they die and are composted. Some have really deep roots, like trees seeking minerals in the depts of the earth, and then they give them back to the surface with their falling autumn leaves. Some benefit from the surface nutriments and have shallow root systems, protecting the surface of the earth with their ground covering growth.
In a potager where we tend to accumulate a concentration of plants with many needs, and combining it with the fact of removing both harvest, plant residue and weeds, we actually owe a lot in return if we wish to “fair play”.
In fact, no matter the initial quality of the soil, all soils needs to receive additional organic matter at a regular basis. In a garden this can take several shapes, but we need to keep a balance of carbon and nitrogen rich material. It’s possible to use almost anything we have nearby – old manure, hay, straw, lawn and other fresh plant parts. If the structure of the earth is good, with a balance of moisture holding earth particles and pores, the roots will have a good environment. They can then easily spread and absorb oxygen, water and nutriments. It also gives the biological life in the earth something to work with, helping to make the nutriments available and airing the earth with their presence.
Going back to the example of the couple with the raised garden beds, they could have put in a chemical fertilizer, but their plants would probably not become healthier and more resistant to disease, since life in the soil would still not have enough to work with. If the nutriments are not made biologically available by natural soil activity, bacteria, fungus etc. we will still not have a functional environment.
Gardening techniques that improve the earth structure are therefore important. Mulching and green manure are the most important ones. Not only does it create material going back to the earth, but also by occupation of the space, it keeps us from once again removing something – weeds! This is generally welcomed by the gardener spending less time on the task, but thus also by the soil. Actually not “tidying up” after each harvested crop is another way of leaving for example roots and above ground material at the spot to go back to the earth. And last but not least, not walking on the cultivated earth keeps an airy structure and keeps you from interrupting the different layers of the soil by having to use tools to air it up again.
There is a lot more to say about this subject, but I will stop there for now. I just want to add that there are some simple garden boosters that can be helpful to know about, especially now in spring. Did you know that an infusion of comfrey not only stimulates germination and the development of the upper areal parts of plants, but that it also reinforces the immune defence of the plants and in the same time stimulates the earth’s microbial life?
You might also want to try the effect of yarrow on your compost. It has been shown that yarrow, even in homeopathic doses, stimulates composting processes! How great that these two are both common plants easy to find and use!