Healthy soil, healthy food
May 30, 2017
Nevada soil inherently lacks nutrition and biology. But, you can build nutrition and biology sustainably in your own backyard. For Nevada soil, this means you need patience and a little time. You do not want to over do it all at once.
It is in our human nature to think, "If I put on loads of manure, woodchips, straw and other stuff all at once, this has to be good." In reality, it's not! Nevada soil does not have the "digestive capacity" to eat raw materials. You have to "pre-turn" the materials into "food" that our Nevada soil can eat and then provide nutrition directly to the plants. Think of Nevada soil as a fussy baby. You cannot give a baby a raw carrot to eat. You have to cook it, blend it and make it into baby food because they can only handle food that's easy to consume and digest. Nevada soils are the same. Due to our arid climate and lack of biology, you need to give the soil "baby food." The sustainable way of doing this is to give your soil small amounts of properly made compost that has been fully broken down by an approved composting program such as the US Compost Council Seal of Testing Assurance. This compost will have been digested by microbes first and put into a form your soil (and plants) can work with. Look to find quality compost made out of recycled materials from your own local area. If the compost is made from local ingredients, it will have a similar biological fingerprint to the native soil. If you are bringing in compost made from organic waste that is from an ecosystem far away (like another state), our soil may find it foreign and might not know what to do with it. Also, you need to watch out for cheap compost that may have harmful materials (like human waste). Many commercial composting companies are making "compost" from "biosolids" or sewage sludge. YUCK!
Let's talk mineral nutrition: As we discussed in previous articles, organic matter and compost only bring certain food to your soil which then goes on to feed your plants. To create sustainable nutrition for your soil that will then go into your food, you need to give the plants the "stuff" they crave. This is a buffet of minerals and nutrients that need to be added to the compost you apply to your garden. Plants crave calcium, magnesium, sulfur, manganese, boron, iron, copper, nitrogen, phosphorus and other elements. The bigger the buffet, the more choices you're giving your plants. Look for quality compost that is also focusing on macro- and micro-nutrition to bring more overall nutrition to the soil that will then transfer to the plant.
It's about building sustainable ecosystems: Growing a healthy garden includes sustainable soil food through quality compost and long-term nutrition through minerals; however, it also revolves around building a sustainable gardening ecosystem. The goal is to create a garden that grows year after year without breaking the bank. After you build a solid soil foundation, it all comes down to how you garden to promote long-term soil nutrition and biology. One idea is the use of cover crops. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen and only 21 percent oxygen. Guess what? You have all the free nitrogen your garden could handle without having to buy any fertilizers. But how do you capture it? The answer is nitrogen-fixing crops. Cornell University has a whole database of information on cover crops, what to plant and when to plant them (http://covercrops.cals.cornell.edu). Cover crops can "suppress weeds, protect soil from rain or runoff, improve soil aggregate stability, reduce surface crusting, add active organic matter to soil, break hardpan, fix nitrogen, scavenge soil nitrogen, and suppress soil diseases and pests." Start using cover crops this year.
Don't kill the worms: Try out no-till or minimal tillage in your garden. The no. 1 reason for this is worms! Worms are the original composters that eat organic matter in your soil and excrete plant food. You want to build a worm population in your garden and if you rototill you are cutting up those little guys. Also, rototilling can oxidize the nutrients that are stored in your soil and they can evaporate into the atmosphere. Rather than rototill, try using a spading fork to gently break the soil up.
Craig Witt is owner of Full Circle Compost. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.