What if the things that we think are so important in our world-money, status, political affiliation, religious beliefs, etc.-turn out to be as transient as foam on the ocean? What if the bedrock of our world, the engine of our existence, the support of our sustenance, turns out to reside in a microscopic population beneath our feet and embedded in our bodies?!
I have mentioned the microbiota of the soil in other posts, especially the last one on vermiculture, but I am being reminded of this reality again because I am in the middle of work on a garden attached to a local homeless center, The Bridge Recovery Center (https://www.bridgenorthtexas.org/) in downtown Dallas. And the first task, as we start the Spring garden (in March! how lovely is that?!!), is to revitalize the soil which means giving the microbes-fungi, protozoa, nematodes, etc.-as much help as possible.
The reason that the Earth feeds us is because the microorganisms that live in the soil feed the plants that we eat. These little guys are living beings, and their habitat, much like the habitats of larger plants and animals, can be ruined and made uninhabitable. This happens when the soil is left uncovered (many of these soil dwellers are killed by the UV rays of the sun); or is filled with chemicals from industrial fertilizers or herbicides; or is dug up or tilled by heavy equipment that breaks the soil up or crushes it down. And when the soil is depleted of these important microscopic beings, the plants that live in and on the soil become undernourished and diseased.
So here I am: raring to go; wanting to dig up the weeds; till in some fertilizer; and (finally!) put in my transplants, seeds, and seedlings. But I will have to make some better choices if I want to see a healthy harvest: I will need to slow down and first feed the soil while protecting its tiny (fungi, bacteria, protozoa, etc.) and not so tiny (worms and insects) ecosystems.
The best way to do this is by not disturbing the microorganisms, especially the fungi, that are already in the soil. The fungi play a particularly pivotal part in soil fertility. Fungi are responsible for bringing nutrients and water to plant roots; and what is called the mycorrhizal network extends far beyond the reach of individual plant’s roots. So when weeds are pulled up, or tilled under, the mycorrhizal network that was in place is destroyed!
The solution to this is no-till gardening. One way of doing this is as follows:
- The weeds are covered with cardboard carefully overlapped so there is no place for the weeds to come through. This kills the plants but leaves the roots and fungi network in place; make sure to take off any plastic tape from the cardboard.
- The cardboard is soaked so it is wet top to bottom;
- Then a layer of organic compost is put down (or good organic soil if you are beginning a raised bed); and this is watered;
- And finally a layer of mulch (chopped up leaves & wood chips work well) is laid on top.
This “lasagna” garden should be left for awhile to allow the worms and insects to begin their work of eating through the cardboard and dead weeds. When the transplants and seedlings are ready to be put in, the mulch is pulled aside to expose the soil underneath.
Just be careful not to use wood mulch in beds where you are direct seeding. Pill bugs and other good predators will eat small seedlings, though they will leave larger ones alone. I have been told that wood chip mulch also can attract slugs. I am coming from a very different planting zone (5a!) so I will see if our wood chip mulch does, in fact, attract slugs.
If you would like to see how Our Backyard Garden at the Bridge is progressing, please follow my blog: https://ourbackyardgardenatthebridge.wordpress.com. Check out YouTube for videos about sheet or “lasagna” mulching and no-till gardening.
Two great books about the soil and microorganisms are Sir Albert Howard’s seminal The Soil and Health; and David Montgomery & Anne Bilké’s The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health.
The important points, again, are to treat the soil with respect; and the denizens of the tilth with gratitude and care.