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A Big Issue Often Ignored
One of the less-discussed but *very* relevant discussions of our food supply is the condition of the soil – both for the plant matter do choose to eat and more important to the lacto-paleo crowd, the plant matter the animals eat who nourish us. Pasture grass-fed is pretty much an *absolute* for those of us who feel that the animal products from ruminants are the most healthy to consume (NO grain fed/finishing). But if their plant food grows on poor soil – what can their bodies be made of (or milk be made of) that we then eat? Ditto on the plants we eat directly.
We’ve built our version of a “solar” greenhouse – for those of you who are now scratching your heads in your mind thinking “aren’t ALL greenhouses SOLAR?” – Well yes of course – but the term “Solar Greenhouse” refers to a specific approach to building, orienting, and, most importantly, equipping a growing greenhouse space with passive heat storage in such a way that it will capture and hold the immense amount of sunlight energy and heat that enters during the day in order to have lots of heat in greenhouse thermal mass storage to release during the cold extended-season nights in early spring and late fall (or even winter, depending on your location).
Our Poor Soil
We live in dry, downright infertile high desert where the soil is mostly caliche runoff form the mesa nearby. This area was seabed not too many millions of years ago and caliche is the deep layer of ancient crustacean shell remains that is basically the eroding layer that is producing the meager “topsoil”. There has not (at least for a loooong time) been enough rain here to grow enough plant matter to develop any real organic loam – so the stark landscape is spotted with tough scrubby 10′ – 20′ tall juniper, cedar and pinion trees and not a lot more (grasses, few shrubs, the ever-diligent tumbleweed and several hardy cacti).
There was no way – without a massive effort – to infuse a serious amount of fertility/moisture-retention ability into the native soil – so we decided to build 16″ raised beds (open bottom) and undertook the arduous task of building all our own soil from scratch – about 1500 cubic feet for 350 running feet of 2′ wide raised beds.
Personally, as much as I love growing – I **hate** digging in the ground, so this was challenging for me to say the least. After investigating coir (shredded coconut husk) vs. peat moss, and despite the cries from some environmentalists that peat moss is non-renewable – we decided on the best overall decision we could come up with. Although European peat bogs have been decimated by bad regulation and over-production, the Canadian Peat Council insists that their operations are sustainable and they provide a strong argument. We also looked at the transportation cost and carbon footprint of bringing peat from Canada vs bringing coir from the Philippines, Thailand or Indonesia. Peat from Canada won the evaluation and we bought 150 – 80# bales for delivery to our property.
The next challenge was the compost to use – and we are fortunate to live near numerous small horse ranches where there is horsesh*t in abundance for the taking. We build no-cost compost containers from salvaged shipping pallets and lined with cardboard and greenhouse plastic and filled them with the horsie black gold and watered it down.
Our hardest step in doing compost right out here was keeping it wet enough in our very low humidity surroundings. The plastic lined (but bottom draining) compost piles were covered after soaking and we achieved – within 2 weeks, 160 degrees F (on our compost thermometer ) of thermophilic “hot pile” composting. That dies down in a couple of weeks and you just keep it moist for the next 2 to 4 months to get a lovely, crumbly, earthy-smelling compost.
The Best Organic Growing Reads
Much of the refining and filling in of the information details regarding soil that I or Sunna were not clear on came from several excellent organic farming books by the “guru” of the “new” organic movement, Elliot Coleman. These reference volumes of his were just great for leading us to a good soil mix, the use of the wonderful “soil blocks” for starting plants and so much more. If you sincerely want to “organically” grow – Elliot is “the man”:
So, with our peat moss and yummy compost accomplished – what else for the mix? The local dirt had to be represented (if only for tribute!) – but since it is sooo sticky and apt to pack when dry, we used only about 5% give or take. We also added 5% to 8% typical cement-mix sand, a few % vermiculite and perlite, several cups of rock phosphate, dolomite lime and green sand (NOT Texas green sand -it’s not nearly as good as the Jersey green sand) and finally a good dose of Yum Yum brand organic fertilizer.
Now the Nutrient/Mineral/Organism Fine Points
Assuring that those minerals and nutrients you put in the soil are more than just there but actually biologically available to the plants is also critical.
Azomite: This is one of the richest mineral-dense rocks mined and, when ground to a fine dust, there is a lot of surface area for which the plant roots (and fungi, talked about below) can access the minerals. Now one must have the correct ph in the soil so that the minerals – as they become “soluble” due to a variety of natural actions in the soil, can be readily take up in the plant. Other rock dusts work as well – Azomite (product link) is just easily available in powdered form.
Mycorrhizal Fungi: In healthy, organic soil mostly unseen to us is a huge matrix of mycorrhizal fungi – this is a class of fungi (different strains working closely with different plants) that lives a communal symbiotic life with the plant – getting a small percentage of the plants photosynthetic products (as fungi have no mechanism to photosynthesize themselves) and in return, creating an amazing, complex and far-reaching network of hyphae, mycelia and/or arbuscular structures that greatly increase the plants access and uptake to minerals, nutrients and water. The symbiosis has been much studied but there is still much to learn. What we do know is that if your plant roots are well-endowed with the proper fungi, the plant’s health and productiveness is greatly increased. Well established beneficial fungi have also been shown to significantly increase a plant’s resistance to its species-specific diseases.
Soil Bacteria Some of these bacteria are abundant in soils that have not been artificially sterilized and that have copious amounts of good compost and organic matter. Others in this class develop and attach to the roots of some plants creating little nitrogen-fixing engines dumping their nitrogen load into the soil after the life cycle of that particular plant (legumes for example). We did not feel it necessary to add these because of the healthy compost we made – however that is not to say it would not be a good idea.
Charcoal or “BioChar” – This is a relatively new area that is, like other things to get “hot” in the media and other circles as wide as growing, probably a good idea – but – perhaps not the messiah like savior of our battered world agriculture and battered world soils that it is sometimes being touted to be. The idea comes from numerous cultures practices of pyrolysis, the burning of organic matter to charcoal and turning into the soil. Also, the discovery of carbon-rich soils in the otherwise infertile Amazon basin – the soil being called Terra Preta. After much reading of supposed facts, theories and hype – we decided that the best argument for carbon-sequestration in the soil via ground up charcoal was its apparent effect on absorbing and holding nutrients minerals and water and then being easily invaded by the mycelia of the mycorrhizal fungi that can then easily access these nutrients. Research done on easily available and inexpensive hardwood charcoal (DON”T use brickets) – like bags of Cowboy” or “Royal Oak” have shown good results – so we get bags of Cowboy and repeatedly run over them with the truck to pulverize them best we can to add to the dirt mix.
Earthworms: Finally -we purchased 2 different kind of earthworms – Alabama Jumpers and European Earthworms – both deep-digging works that live well in high-organic content soil. Don’t buy the composting worms for your garden soil – they hang around near the top and are specifically best at vermicomposting – not soil conditioning. Also, here’s a good little volume on raising your own works and processing your own kitchen waste – into great compost! DIY Worm Farming
Then out with the shovels and the unpleasant work of mixing it all well together, wetting down and filling the raised beds.
There are lots more amendments and just a many “pitches” for their use. We, for example, make and apply compost tea about once a week during season – especially when the plants are setting and growing fruit/veg.
1st Year Results
Finally a couple of pics of the 1st growing year in the “new” soil. We noticed that our experimental plot/small greenhouse that was started a year before and using 1/2 55 gallon drum containers for the mixed dirt had some significantly better results the 2nd year (which was the 1st year for the solar greenhouse). We are anxious to see if these improvements manifest in the raised beds of the solar greenhouse in this 2nd year of growing.