Soil fertility, humus, tilth

February 25, 2011

Test soil of gardens, lawns to ensure fertility, balance

In a previous column, we wrote about how one can look at the weeds growing in a field and determine soil deficiencies.

For example, dandelions tell us we have too much soil sedmentation; consider them natural tillers of your field; when they die back, the hollowed out root system is used by earthworms to travel and further break up and fertilize the soil, bringing calcium to the surface. So, far from being “just a weed,” they’re the gardener’s friend. (Thank Charles Walters of Acres USA for this good advice!)

But beyond what our “weed” friends are telling us, it’s a good idea, too, to take a soil sample and have it tested, not only for your organic garden (certified organic growers must test every year), but also for your lawn and flower beds. You might be surprised at what you find (that you’ve been overfertilizing or adding the wrong amendments).

The Mississippi State University Extension Service Soil Testing Laboratory analyzes soil. It only costs $6 for a routine analysis.

For additional information, see http://msucares.com/crops/soils/testing.html, visit your local extension service office or write: Soil Testing Laboratory, Box 9610, Mississippi State MS 39762; or call (662) 325-3313.

As an example, while it’s not required, we sample three areas of our little ShooFly Farm because we’re on a hill, and we actually have three different types of soil; at the top of the hill, it’s red clay sandy soil, highly acidic; at the middle, halfway down, it’s loamy and high zinc presumably from previous owners using composted chicken manure as fertilizer; at the bottom, it’s dense clay soil.

Each has its own needs. For example, we’ve been steadily working to build humus and composted material in the top area, to hold moisture and build tilth, and provide optimum conditions for microbial life.

In the middle area, we’ve concentrated on building fertility through adding composted horse manure and high nitrogen cover crops.

At the bottom, we’ve just used standard crop rotation along with allowing natural weeds and brush as a “buffer” zone between the highway and our fields.

For your 4-by-8 “Jim’s plot,” of course, it’s a lot simpler. Just take a small trowel or spoon and fill the cardboard box that MSU provides for a soil sample, send it off with your payment, and in a few weeks, you’ll get your results.

Reader response: An online reader wrote from Hawaii about starting a backyard CSA (community supported agriculture) plot to share produce with friends and family:

“But alas, I can’t plant a garden. Military housing is strongly opposed to us digging a garden in our backyards. We can’t even compost in housing here.”

I suggested that perhaps there was a community garden somewhere that she could donate time to help tend in exchange for food, and she wrote back that, in fact, she shopped at a local farmer’s market at least once a week and would look into it.

People who live in urban areas might also consider “yard sharing.” That’s where they link up with people who have space to grow but not the inclination.

Yard sharing has grown in popularity nationwide. To find someone in your area, check out: http://hyperlocavore.ning.com/page/about-us.

It’s a free yardsharing service operated by Liz McLellan in Boise, Idaho.

There is good value in getting your hands dirty and thinking about things. Lately, I’ve been employed a good bit in farm work and, consequently, have had lots of time to mull things over.

One of the items that has long simmered just beneath my consciousness is the sorry state of rural America. I remember when I was a boy, small rural places were bustling. Now, they are like ghost towns. I remember local communities thriving, filled with the commerce of farms and farmers who came and shopped. What happened to those people? Those communities?

We can’t just blame it on the lure of cities. For, indeed, the ties that kept rural people rural were broken loose, over the decades from the 1950s, when I was a boy, to before now.

The economic, social, moral and spiritual collapse of rural America may ultimately prove not to be the result of America’s decline but the cause of it.

Let’s reverse this. Let’s renew rural America from the ground up! I think we can do it with just the same kind of initiative and self-reliance that I’ve been writing about here; with backyard farming, micro-farming, growing local food for neighbors, churches, friends, family, and creating markets for our goods.

We lost our roots because we let them go. But roots can grow again, if we plant our feet and try again.

Jim PathFinder Ewing is a journalist, author, writer, editor, organic farmer and blogger. His latest book titled Conscious Food: Sustainable Growing, Spiritual Eating (Findhorn Press) is in bookstores now. Find Jim on Facebook: http://bit.ly/cuxUdc or follow him @edibleprayers or @organicwriter or visit blueskywaters.com.

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