by Robert Waldrop
Soil is fundamental to agriculture and gardening and thus is fundamental to human life. Fertile topsoil is a precious resource, and there is less and less of it all the time. Half of Oklahoma’s top soil is now somewhere at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico. I don’t know if it is helping or hurting things there, but the loss of topsoil here at home is critical. If we want to step forward into a more sustainable future, we need to take care of our soil. That way the soil can take care of us.
The first rule is do no harm. No noxious chemicals on your soil or plants--no herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers. Yes, its true. Even Miracle Gro will damage your soil over the long term. It is not nice to poison Mother Nature. We shall indeed reap what we have sown, and if we continually sow poison, that is what we will harvest. Do No Harm!
Next, cultivate an attitude of loving stewardship towards whatever land you are responsible for, whether that be a 1/7 of an acre city lot or a thousand acre farm. The ground you walk on is a vital resource. To let it just wash down the river is like flushing money down the toilet. (We do that too, but that’s another column for a later day.)
If you have any bare soil, mulch it. Bare soil is eroding soil. Cover it with a nice layer of grass clippings, shredded leaves, chipped tree limbs, whatever you happen to have handy--several inches at least. Mulch decomposes, so its like a compost pile. The floor of a forest is always covered in mulch. That’s one way that nutrients are cycled, but please don’t buy bags of “cypress mulch” as that is made by chopping down mature cypress trees and shredding them.
Nutrient accumulator plants gather up nutrients from soil and make them available to other plants. Areas with perennial food producing plants like fruit trees and berry bushes will benefit from the presence of nutrient accumulator plants like comfrey, dandelion, fennel, lambs quarters, thistles, vetch, plantain, alfalfa, burdock, caraway, dock, lemon balm, sorrel, or pigweed. Yes, many people consider some of these weeds, but one person’s weed is another person’s valuable nutrient accumulator! One time someone showed up and wanted to help with my garden. The first thing they did was reach down to pluck up a dandelion. I am afraid I actually screeched, “Don’t pick the dandelions!” They were very confused until I explained the importance and many uses of "weeds."
Nitrogen fixing plants take nitrogen from the air and with the assistance of beneficial bacteria in the soil, make it available to other plants. These include all the legumes (peas, beans), all the clovers and vetches, alfalfa, and some trees (black locust, autumn olive, Kentucky coffee tree, mimosa, mesquite, wisteria).
Do not till. Once you start to plow or till, you open the soil to erosion. I have never tilled my annual garden space. I keep it constantly covered with mulch, so there is a steady compost process going on all the time, just like the floor of a forest. I never walk on the garden beds, that way the soil doesn’t get compacted. When I set out plants, I simply make a little hole in the mulch, scoop enough dirt out to accommodate the plant, and put it back in place. Planting seeds, I follow the same procedure--make a little hole in the soil and plant the seed. The only seeds that I have to actually remove the mulch for are carrots, which I typically mix with sand and broadcast. After they sprout, and I thin them a bit, mulch goes back on the soil. Nature doesn’t till the soil, but even so plants manage to take root and grow. Tilling not only exposes the soil to erosion, it hurts earthworms and other micro flora and micro fauna in the soil, mixes up soil layers, buries organic matter in the soil, and is a lot of hard work. So let’s invest our hard work in other areas where it is needed and skip the tilling this year in favor of deep mulch. Let the earthworms do the work!
Happy soil grows happy plants, and that leads to happy gardeners. So let’s all take better care of our soil this year, so that the soil can continue to care for us and our children and our children’s children for generations to come.