Friday, September 4, 2009

Soil: An Incredible Journey

Today in the Indian valley farm class Wendy Johnson told us the story of an emigrant farmer who arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but a handful of soil from his Sicilian homeland in his pocket.  We are made of the earth on which we dwell.  We are nothing without the ground that sustains us, and, like the Sicilian farmer, we feel that somewhere deep in our hearts.  The soil offers us hope.

Yet, so often, we trudge across the ground and think nothing of it.  We take earth for granted, assuming it has always and will always provide for us.  We manipulate the land as if nothing we do matters.  We might call attention to the oil shortage, or polluted water, but we do not look out for the soil upon which everything depends.  There is an expression to  "treat someone like dirt."  Imagine if that idiom someday became a compliment.

Out the Indian Valley Organic Farm we gave our soil some of the attention it deserves.  First, we stood back and considered our dirt in geologic time.  Steve Quirt reminded us of the incredible journey - at one time all dirt was rock at the top of a mountain,.  Soil is ancient, millions and millions of years old, by the time it reaches our feet.  Eventually, through a long process of compression, it will make  its way back to the form of rock again.

We were blessed by balmy cloud cover and an unusual September sprinkling of rain as we got down to the "nitty-gritty," studying soil samples close up.  Most of us in the Bay Area find clay in our backyards.  Those near the ocean find sand.  The ideal garden soil is "loam," which is 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay.  Clay is wonderful, powerful stuff, of course.  That's because of it's fine block-like structure and surface area or "large reactive surface area" which allows the most nutrients to adhere and become part of the soil composition...but, as we who garden or farm in the area know, it can become very hard and compacted, allowing in little water or air.  So, the trick is to mix in enough of the sand, which has the opposite texture, and silt, to get a balanced composition.  Then you amend with organic matter to keep that microbial action up and running, and you begin to have a very healthy growing environment.  Wendy advised us to aim for soil that can be made into a ball, but "pings" apart easily.

Here, she set up a simple soil test in the Farm "lab" (see above). She wanted to compare the permeability of  lovely soil from Green Gulch Farm, to the Indian Valley "parent" soil, to the new Indian Valley Organic Farm soil, which has been heartily amended over the past year.  The results were not surprising, but were fun to watch.  The Green Gulch soil held the most water, of course, but the IVOF soil did pretty darn well for a beginner.  One key concept we discussed was the difference between soil Texture, which is what soil is (this you cannot change) and soil Structure, which is the way soil behaves

Don't forget to listen to your soil.  Rub a little sample between your fingers and "listen for the gritch, gritch, gritch, of Mr. McGregor's hoe," Wendy advises.  That sound means things are going pretty well.

She also poured Hydrogen Peroxide on the various soil samples to test the bacterial activity level.  See the fizzy, bubbly areas?  That's  Hydrogen Peroxide reacting with the microbes.  Fizz is good.

Next it was time to make some cakes for our soil.  Great big beautiful Rudbekia and Sunflower-decorated towering compost cakes.  We started with some corn stalk at the bottom, providing a foundational structure and aeration.  Then add layers of freshly harvested green material (you'll see we pulled up a whole melon field), then manure, dry leaf mulch, more green material, more manure, some straw...and more of the same several times over.  The goal is to maintain a nice "broad-backed" prism shape (in one photo below you can see that we used stalks and stems and vines to make a "frame" for the growing shape) .  Keep the piles damp, and there you have it.   In two hours we were able to build five fancy multi-tiered compost cakes which will eventually be fed to our cherished farmland soil.

One of my favorite things about this "Compost Party" was working alongside fellow gardeners and hearing about where they came from, where they first formed an attachment to the land.  New Mexico, Brazil, New England...I have a feeling this farm will overhear many stories from our homelands. 

A lot of harvesting and clearing organic material.
A lovely sunflower "frame"
Keep the piles damp.
Will the pile have shrunk by next Wednesday?

There are always party favors at a garden party

1 comment:

  1. From Lynn Tompkins in Martha's Vineyard: Lynn here- on Martha's Vineyard, looking out at the blue harbor full of boats, where it has just poured rain & everything is lush green with multitudes of flowers. So different than California at this time of year.. I see the photos of the fires & wonder what can be done to help replant that ravaged land. I just read "Morning Glory Farm -& the family that feeds an island" (Martha's Vineyard). I'll bring it back for the rest of the class to see. It is a lovely story of one local family's return to the soil, plus good recipes! I'm enjoying "Gardening At the Dragon's Gate", & have taken it around to the local bookstores. I love this blog! It's a great addition to the class.
    :) Lynn