Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Turning Bad Soil into Good Soil

I have an addiction. I find myself compelled by some inner need to continually turn bad soil into good soil. Solum penuriosus ut Solum Copiosus.

The images below show what our soil looked like in our garden 5 years into our Old Solar Agriculture methods and what it looks like when are "finished". (We are really never finished we just move from a renovation phase to a maintenance phase.) When we first started on the garden plot it was compacted, "dead" red clay that had been tilled deeply and spread with herbicides and petroleum based fertilizers. Renovating this plot of land was done with fewer and fewer fossil fuels as the years passed along. I must say that the change was only somewhat noticeable year by year while we were running gas powered tillers and tractors over the land but it was by degrees. We saw dramatic improvements in the quality of our soil when we stopped tilling and started using a broadfork, manual hoe-ing, and amendments with organic matter - all by hand and solar power. The changes in soil quality, drainage, and depth of our soil improved much faster in the last two years than in the previous eight, though it takes longer to do the work manually than with a tiller and a tractor.

 Solum penuriosus
(Poor Soil)

Solum Copiosus
(Fertile soil)

The Old Solar Technique is simple but slow: and though slow, long lasting. We don't have to think about what we are doing while using this technique. There are no chemical formulas; no soil test; no decisions about what pertroleum based fertilizer we are using (12-12-12 or 16-16-16); we do not have to buy bags of lime or peat, or sow cover crops (though we could very easily if we wanted to). We simply add to our garden solar powered organic material every time we work a bed. Our goats eat grass and weeds that have collected solar energy and converted it into food which they turn into nitrogen rich manure. Our chickens turn our composted kitchen items, leaves, and animal bedding into shreds, our pigs till the land without damaging it, and all of our animals produce waste from their feed which is generated by solar power.

It is simple (though hard work) - we mulch with straw and leaves when we plant, and even the weeds we pull are used to mat-down the walk ways and fence rows. From time to time we will buy a large round bale of old hay and use that to fill in the pumpkin patch, walkways and other areas of the garden. Throughout the summer, whenever we weed out an area or replant, more organic material is spread around and upon the bed. We rotate our crops, always careful to add composted manure for crops that need alot of nitrogen and following crops that use nitrogen with beans and peas that replace it. In the late fall and winter we mulch the beds heavily which reduces the amount of hoe-ing and weeding we need to do in the spring and also allows us to over winter crops that we continue to sell at our market all winter long while more conventional growers have shut down for the season. We do not need to let the ground rest over the winter as conventional wisdom would instruct because we are constantly renewing the soil throughout the year.

One self-proclaimed old-timey farmer we know once questioned us about the wisdom of using old hay to mulch with. "That will just introduce weeds into your garden won't it?", he asked with a sense of mocking derision.

"Yes it does," I replied.  Then I asked him a question: "You don't mulch with hay or mulch at all. Do you have to pull weeds every year?"

He had to admit that he did or that he sprayed to kill the weeds.

"If I am going to pull weeds anyway, why wouldn't I use something that controls weeds this year, eliminates the use of herbicides, AND adds humus to the soil even if I get weeds from it the following spring?"

"What is humus?" he asked.

We have lost so much knowledge of how to maintain the soil since the advent of NPK fertilizers and mechanization that it is scary what we are doing to America's soil. We, in effect, are cutting off the branch we are sitting on when we allow our soil to be depleted or washed away. Agri-businesses talk alot about how much food they grow per acre and how little fossil fuels it takes per bushel but they never talk about how much soil they lose every year. One has only to look at the vast corn and wheat fields in our midwest to see how much the hills of small farms have disappeared into flat lands and how many inches those flat lands sink every year because of erosion and the depletion of soil nutrients. The number of floods throughout these areas - even on farms no where near the Mississippi and other rivers.

American agriculture has replaced, in the words of Wendell Berry and others, natural solar power and organic matter, with the faster and more expensive petroleum based "fertility" available in bags, sprays, and machines.

With the Old Solar Method he describes, our soil is more fertile, easier to handle, well drained, not-compacted, and the level of our garden, which once sat at least 3 inches lower than the surrounding ground, now is a couple of inches above the surrounding ground which reduces erosion.

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