Soil and fertilizing are big subjects which I hope to continually address over time. I am going to go with the short, internet-friendly answers for this article and leave more in-depth explanations up to the scientists, technicians and entrepreneurs who have done a great job of in-depth explanation. Check out a nice, user friendly introduction to this subject Teaming With Microbes, A Gardeners Guide To The Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis which provides a good description of how it all works, and how you can use simple technology at home to feed your plants without damaging the ecology.
Over the course of history we have been dealing with the problems associated with our habit of collecting up and dwelling in large numbers within a small area. The advantages of living together in great numbers are many, but they often test the local natural resources and create daunting challenges.
Food became an issue because we farmed soils so intensively–erosion and compaction made land inhospitable for growing healthy crops. In response to these problems we devised technology (plows, mined and synthetic fertilizers, etc) to deliver nutrients to plants and to loosen up soil. These technologies are not to be frowned upon, and my intent isn’t to argue with history. These solutions helped feed people. But they came with costs which we are just understanding now: they further ruin soils, and they are
polluting our waterways. They are also depleting nonrenewable resources: there are troubling facts about upcoming phosphorus shortages that threaten to cause great food shortages to anyone dependent on such a resource. Nitrogen is now synthesized, but that requires fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal.
What is not talked about much is how much fertilizers (as well as pesticides) and plowing/rototilling kill organisms in the soil that are good for the crops we try to grow, and encourage the very opportunistic, pathogenic species of organisms that are harmful to plants and to us. Fertilizers are salts. When we apply them to soils in amounts sufficient to support crops, they create situations that are harmful to beneficial microorganisms. It is a quick fix that has a shelf life.
The solution is to follow nature: to bring soils closer to the conditions that support healthy plant life and life in general and to discourage the pathogenic/opportunistic species that create all the problems.
Here are a few steps you can make to move in this direction:
- Try to avoid soil disturbance (especially soil compaction). Most of the time you must break this rule in the beginning (when you dig up your garden plot) because we are usually starting with soil that has already been disturbed. Upon your first major enrichment and attempt at loosening up the soil (and thus adding oxygen) try to use simple, mindful methods. Also try to do this as little as possible in the future. Let nutriment come from above. Let worms and biological activity open up the soil. When you first break up the ground, be mindful of your methods. Plows in a field, while loosening up what is above the blade, compact the soil below. Compact soils create anaerobic conditions (low oxygen) and these are the conditions that breed pathogens. Slicing up the soil also disturbs fungus mycelia (the bodies of beneficial fungus).
- Stop using chemical (synthetic or mined) fertilizers. They kill microorganisms, ruin soil and ruin the water supply while taxing our natural resources.
- Start composting correctly (this takes some information which is addressed in the book above). I will also address this
subject in some depth in future articles. For now HERE IS AN ARTICLE I WROTE WHEN I WORKED FOR DR. ANDREW WEIL.
- Feed your soil with organic food. When you feed organically, you are not just feeding your plants, you are also feeding the critters in the soil that feed your plants: fish emulsion, kelp meal, bone meal, blood meal are just a few examples of foods that work well. Don’t let the low nutritional analysis make you think they are less beneficial to plants than synthetics. Most water soluble fertilizers never make it to plants–most of it just moves on past the plants and into our water supply.
- Learn about aerated compost tea and start brewing your own. It’s simple to do once you learn the basics. I will also address this in future articles here. But for now, READ WHAT I HAVE ALREADY WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT.
- Mulch plants. This creates insulation that not only protects plants, but often feeds the soil from above, and makes soil cooler in the summer, warmer in the winter. It is habitat that plants benefit from when done correctly.
- Add worms, and feed them. This will also be discussed in future articles; there are plenty of good resources on the internet for this subject. HERE IS ONE. You can raise worms in your kitchen under your sink or in a utility closet. They take most types of food scraps and turn them into incredibly rich product (vermicompost or worm castings) full of nutrients and beneficial organisms. There is a simple book Worms Eat My Garbage by Mary Appelhof that can get you started on vermiculture (raising worms).
- Inoculate your garden with beneficial organisms (beneficial nematodes, bacteria, fungi, etc) and insects. One excellent source that comes to mind immediately: ARBICO ORGANICS sells everything from praying mantis to spores of beneficial fungi. They offer both general and specific solutions to pest problems and raising healthy soil.
- Water correctly: People almost always under water or over water. You should water thoroughly enough that plants needs are met, but not so much that you drown your soil and cause anaerobic conditions. This means also ensuring in the beginning that drainage is good.
All these things at-a-glance might be overwhelming. Start off small. Personally, I am a man of little financial resources. Currently I live in a rental and have zero expendable income. I have recently pulled together resources like manure and used fencing from friends to convert my back yard which has probably never had a garden into hopefully something that will provide happiness (and food). I will slowly build up a support for a biological system supportive of my plants and take you along for the ride. I will share successes and failures with you. Yes, though I have spent my whole life obsessing on plants, I often fail. But those failures always teach me about what I can do better. This is how you should observe your failures.
I also am quite aware of the cultural and practical challenges posed by living in urban or suburban areas. My goal is to collect up solutions for these challenges and share them with you. Please feel free to let me know what solutions you have come to: firstname.lastname@example.org