September 12, 2012

Lesson Learned: It's All About the Soil!

I know..."Well, duh!!", right? Of course raising food is all about the soil! As someone who's been gardening her whole life and who grew up across the street from an esteemed UC Davis soil scientist (Omund Lilleland), I did already know that. But I had forgotten that growing veggies really is ALL about the soil--whatever comes out of the ground is almost secondary, even if it's the main reason you're gardening. As Gene Logsdon says, "I don't know which of those two goals--enriching the soil or raising the food--you consider more important, but it makes little difference. In accomplishing the first goal organically, you achieve the second automatically."

If you start taking your soil for granted or get lazy about soil fertility at all, as I did this spring and summer, you will notice it. If you're like me, after kicking yourself for making such a stupid mistake, you take immediate action to fix it and refocus your attention on the all-important dirt. So, as one of my all-time favorite literary characters, Hermione Granger, would do, the first place I went in order to solve this problem was the good 'ol library. In the last month I've read two great books about soil, both available through the Yolo County Library. The first is the relatively new book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

Reading this 200-pager, I learned loads about soil structure, the difference between bacterially-dominated and fungally-dominated soils, the bazillions of bacteria and fungi (and other creatures) that inhabit our soils and especially compost, and finally what to do in the garden to encourage beneficial soil life and a healthy soil food web. The book is written in accessible language (i.e. not overly scientific, which is a risk given the subject matter) and is filled with all kinds of fascinating information, like, for example, the fact that earthworms can live to be 15 years old. Who knew?

The second book was Gene Logsdon's The Gardener's Guide to Better Soil, published in 1975 by Rodale Press. This book, too, is a combination of technical information about soil--in this case, a focus on the various types of soil across the country--and practical information on how to manage and build fertile soil. While the first book was fascinating and well worth a read, Logsdon's book is the one I'll buy and put on my own homestead reference shelf. Aside from all the practical info, I like his more opinionated, personal writing style and he has a definite environmentalist bent, which I appreciate. (I also own and love Gene Logsdon's new book Holy Shit: Managing Manure to Save Mankind, but that's another post.)

Both books stress the importance of compost, for all the reasons we already know compost is essential to improving the soil and growing fantastic veggies. The part I didn't know was exactly how much bacterial and fungal life is in homemade compost and how critical it is to inoculate and regularly amend all your garden soil with all that life. (There's a lot less of it in the sterilized, bagged compost you find at the nursery.) I have many compost piles going throughout the yard, so I'm all set there. Both books also devote a chapter to mulching, with Logsdon calling mulch "a kind of minor miracle" and noting all the reasons it's critical in the garden. Again, while I already knew the importance of mulch, I will admit that not all my beds were mulched this season, proving that everybody needs a reminder once in a while.

The one major topic on which these two books disagree is breaking up the soil. Lowenfels and Lewis argue strongly against the practice of disturbing the soil structure through tilling and deep digging, quipping, "Sure, the soil is fluffy after rototilling, but that's a dog's name, not a soil description." Logsdon, on the other hand, suggests cultivating for the purposes of preparing a firm seedbed and controlling weeds, and includes instructions on deep digging by hand or using a rotary tiller in a larger garden. Of course, this book was written almost forty years ago and it's possible his views on tilling may have changed, but there are plenty of other vegetable gardening experts who still recommend the practice of double digging (John Jeavons comes to mind first.)

So, I now have all kinds of new information about managing soil to put into practice on the Banyan's End homestead. I will be paying much closer attention to what the soil is trying to tell me through the vegetables that are growing out of it, and I will report back on the blog as I take steps to increase soil fertility and organic matter content. And finally, a few more words of wisdom from Gene: "We will learn how to take care of our soil...and our soil will take care of us." I am dedicating myself to that learning in earnest, starting right now.


  1. We double dug to get our beds off to their start when we first moved in. We also have theose beds surrounded by 2X6's, which gives us about two feet of rich root zone overall. Since that initial double dig, we compost regularly- once in spring, once in fall- and mulch heavily. Manures also make up part of our garden regimen. Chickens are penned in chicken tractors in the fall. They till in the compostables I toss to them, and leave their nitrogen rich deposits. We don't plant in that bed till spring, but nitrogen lovers like corn do quite well. Rabbit manure gets tossed on throughout the growing season as it can be tossed on straight out of the bunny. Aged horse manure makes its way out there too in the fall.

    Indeed, it is all about the soil. Feed the soil, not the plants.

    1. I experimented with double digging one of my beds last week. It's a lot of work, especially when you hit the nasty hardpan layer in our clay soils, but I can see how worthwhile it will be. I have five compost bins going throughout the yard right now, two filled with chicken manure, but I still never seem to have enough for all the beds and I've yet to find a good source of purchased, organic compost in bulk. I did manage to score a truckload full of aged horse manure this year, though--that is slowly making its way into the garden.