Dianne Miessler: Spring into the soil food web
It’s spring! It’s finally spring! I can tell because the tulips are blooming and I’ve painted my toenails.
You’re probably thinking it’s time to plant a garden; I would agree. Here are some tips for doing it while befriending your soil food web — that community of organisms that feeds plants and enriches your soil.
Easy steps to a fabulous garden that feeds your soil.
1. If you have a rototiller, drive it off a cliff. Read on, or see my column on the topic from waaaay back on March 19, 2015.
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2. Decide where your garden will be. One or two 4-foot by 8-foot beds is a good size to start. A little lumber border is nice, but not necessary.
3. Be sure you have water going to it. Many a gardener’s soul has been crushed by plants that died from a combination of good intentions and bad watering. A hose, sprinkler, and cheap shut-off will suffice.
4. Decide where you’ll walk. Make paths to keep you from trampling your planting areas. Use them. I mean it.
5. Pull stuff up, throw stuff down.
7. Water. Wait a little while.
8. Eat (If you’ve planted vegetables. You can also eat some flowers, like nasturtiums and violets, which look beautiful sprinkled over a salad.) And make some bouquets.
Let me elaborate.
If you’re a seasoned gardener, you may have had a love affair with your rototiller. It’s time to break it off and move on. It’s not you, it’s it.
Rototillers — and any other kind of cultivation that turns and mixes soil — does damage to the soil food web: an amazing community of organisms that eat and are eaten by each other, and in the process enrich soil. The term was coined by Dr. Elaine Ingham, a pioneering microbiologist who figured out that plants feed themselves by feeding the soil food web.
Plants use photosynthesis — that chemical reaction that makes life on earth possible — to manufacture sugars. These sugars are used to make the building blocks of plant structure, and also to make sweet substances that help them grow and multiply.
Flowers produce nectar, which attracts pollinating bugs and birds. And plant roots exude sugary substances that feed the soil food web, which feeds plants. It’s sort of like they’re putting cookies out for Santa. If Santa gave you plant nutrients for Christmas. Sorry, Virginia, no pony.
Those sugary exudates attract bacteria and fungi, which attract nematodes and protozoa and tiny bugs and worms. And all this action in the root zone creates rich soil, full of life, and full of the nutrients plants love, predigested for them.
Ever pull a clump of grass out of sandy/gravelly soil along the roadside and notice the dark soil clinging to the roots? The plant did that! That grass didn’t just happen to find a root-shaped hunk of dirt to grow into; it created that dirt by attracting and feeding the soil food web.
Gardeners love to stir up their soil, either by tilling or by turning and breaking up dirt to make a nice empty seedbed. But this damages the soil food web, especially mycorrhizae — long, fragile chains of fungal cells that act like living hair extensions for roots, bringing water and nutrients from afar and improving soil texture.
And traipsing back and forth across your big vegetable patch with the rototiller creates hardpan as it’s assassinating your soil food web friends.
There’s an alternative. And here it is:
Once you have a spot for your garden, designate paths that are no more than four feet apart, so you can reach into your planting beds without stepping on them. These planting beds will be permanent; never again will they be trod upon.
Pull stuff up, throw stuff down. After a good rain or watering, pull out everything growing in your garden and put it to work feeding the soil food web. As you work your way into the garden on your newly-determined paths, pull up anything growing in the beds, and then the paths, and lay it down on the soil; this will start to compost in place. As you go, put something on the paths that will keep you out of the mud — cardboard, straw, upside-down carpet strips or, if you want to be sort of show-offy, wood chips.
Cover the green plants you just laid on the planting beds with something brown — straw, leaves, duff you rake from your yard. This creates the mix of greens and browns that equals compost, eventually.
Pulling out the roots will have loosened the soil; when you’re ready to plant, just scoot the green and brown mulch aside, chop in a little compost or natural fertilizer, and plant your seeds or seedlings. I add compost or fertilizer on new gardens because the mulch can tie up nitrogen; once you’ve gardened this way for a while, though, your soil will be so alive it can adapt to whatever you throw its way.
Water early in the morning to allow foliage to dry out during the day; this helps prevent diseases and also makes your garden less hospitable to slugs. I also put out some organic snail bait, because slugs can break a gardener’s heart, and their name is legion. Gardening this way, you’ll see your soil become more and more rich, instead of being depleted by tilling. When you pull up spent plants, you’ll find dark, wiggly soil underneath, full of microbes and adorable little worms.
And you’ll know you’re doing right by the planet, because no-till gardening pulls carbon out of the atmosphere, where it’s making your favorite planet warmer than we like it, and sticks it into your soil as humus, the brown stuff that makes rich soil rich. What’s not to love?
Get on out there! But first, lose the rototiller.
Diane Miessler is a nurse, certified permaculture designer, and compulsive gardener. Her book, “Grow Some Soil: Harness the Power of Microbes for Your Best Garden Ever,” will be published this fall. She lives in Nevada City with her husband and an ill-mannered chihuahua.
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