Friday, January 22, 2010

A Complicated Story Made Simple Again

After reading what I wrote this morning. I thought even I can't understand it so I rewrote the whole thing.
From all the reading I've been doing lately I have been struck hard that I've been going about my gardening with the wrong emphasis, too much attention to the surface and not enough to the foundation. That's when I began studying Ph levels and their effects on plants along with how it locks up or releases nutrients. Then I went even deeper to the microbes in the soil itself. It was like watching Men In Black I and II where they open the locker and find first of all the tiny creatures with their own little world and then open the large locker door and the giant creatures are walking below them. The world I opened up with my reading was so tiny that we can't see it with our naked eye. In fact, the microorganisms or bacteria are so small that in a gram of soil there can be billions of these creatures and most live in the organic matter on the top 10 cms of soil.
In the case of my native ground, they barely exist at all. Yet, this world of creatures is what makes the true difference of whether your garden is a success or not. They're the cooks that stir up and mix the ingredients to feed the plants. We just need to feed them and cultivate their environment so they can multiply.
I'd been amending the soil in my garden for years rather haphazardly but I didn't understand fully what I was doing. This limited my success. People who see my garden are amazed as you can see from past photos, little vegetation naturally grows here. I intend to do much better. I needed knowledge and so I began an earnest study of the soil. Something Eliot Coleman said in his book, The New Organic Grower, hit me hard. "If I attempt to feed the plant directly, I am in effect deciding that I can do a better job. " He is referring to the use of chemical fertilizers. Then he goes on to say, "The soil serves merely as an anchor for plant roots, and the majority of the food for plant growth is provided by the fertilizer. The soil remains infertile, however, and the fertilizer application will have to be repeated for every crop. The situation is similar to helping a student by providing the answers to the test. The result may be a good grade but the help will have to be given every time."
It wasn't that I was using chemical fertilizers in my garden beyond amending the Ph with sulfur but the fact that I took the soil for granted thinking it would simply take care of me if I threw a little manure its way. A friend tells me that the definition for a fool is someone who keeps doing the same thing thinking they'll get a different result. My garden was better by far than it had been but it was far from reaching its potential because I wasn't changing my strategy.

By now your wondering what the photos have to do with the blog's topic - nothing. Since a number of blogs I looked at since coming home with our computer had beautiful sunset pictures, I figured I'd show a sunrise a couple of days ago. Didn't want to feel left out. lol
The role of Nitrogen, Phosphorus, and Potassium, let alone the trace minerals had me confused and I wasn't sure how much I needed to add. Then I learned you could throw all the nutrients you wanted at the plants but if they weren't in the right form it was like placing a whole cow on your plate and saying, "Eat up!" The cow was simply too large and not in the right form in which to consume. This is often what happens with clay soil. Clay soils are typically full of nutrients but not in a form the plants can consume.
All this information I was collecting was awesome but overwhelmed me and I didn't know how I was going to compute it all into something I could act upon until I realized that as complicated as all this was to understand, you really only needed part of the information.
I needed to throw out all the big words I couldn't pronounce and create a picture even I could understand. And this picture of the soil's needs didn't start with a soil sample sent to the lab so you can save your money. I'll show you other ways you can tell what's going on underneath the ground. In Eliot Coleman's book he talks about what happened when he sent the exact same soil sample to three labs. The results were starkly different. I sent a soil test to our state lab once years ago and then thought, this is only good for the moment. My soil is every changing from week to week and very different every year, sometimes better and sometimes worse. With more ground being transformed into garden every year and the old ground never staying the same, I'd be testing over and over again for each area of my garden.
Yet the basic needs of each area of the garden soil was the same: air, food, water, and shelter and these had to be met in order for the soil's microorganisms to live. That was what I first needed to address.
My soil base is clay, clay, and clay. If you add water it drowns microorganisms because it doesn't drain. It is so compacted that they can't breathe since there is so little air. Wait a minute, that isn't entirely true, the bad bacteria don't require air, they die if their exposed, and without it they produce toxic compounds that limit root growth and predispose plants to root diseases. That sounds familiar.

They tell me that clay soil has a warehouse full of nutrients but what good is it if the plants can't access it. I began wondering who was guarding the stockpile. If you live in a fairly arid area its most likley the stingy clan of guards from the Alkaline family. They don't share, just hoard.
I realized my first order of business was to fire the guards and open the warehouse. That means changing the PH of the soil to a neutral area. Not too quickly as microorganisms are fragile and can be killed by the slightest changes in the soils PH environment. Their sensitive little guys, too dry, too hot, too wet, too acidic and you'll have mass graves.
The second order is to supply the bacteria in charge of shipping an air supply by increasing the humus in the soil. The third is to feed them. Lay out a lovely buffet of goodies and they will come.

After reading what masters these bacteria are I'm not even going to begin to take over their tasks. These bacteria are master chemists combining calcium to render phosphate soluble and available to plants. They take nitrogen from the air and transform it into a form that plants thrive on. These soil bacteria even have doctors. They call them Frankia, an Antinomycetes, that administers antibiotics when needed to the plants. The microorganisms or bacteria even have an army that keeps the bad bacteria like e-coli in shackles.
They've a perfect system. I'd just bungle things if I interferred so I'll leave them to their task and try and learn my part. It's complicated enough.

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