Even if you have planted a garden in your backyard, you probably don’t think a whole lot about dirt or soil. But you should.
Everything we eat comes from soil.
Milk? Ice cream? Chocolate?
Everything. The soil feeds everything. Everything we get comes from soil.
The Impact on Our Health
Because of soil depletion, crops grown decades ago were much richer in vitamins and minerals than the varieties most of us get today.
The main culprit in this disturbing nutritional trend is soil depletion: Modern intensive agricultural methods have stripped increasing amounts of nutrients from the soil in which the food we eat grows. Sadly, each successive generation of fast-growing, pest-resistant carrot is truly less good for you than the one before.
A landmark study from the University of Texas (UT) at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry was published in December 2004 in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. They studied U.S. Department of Agriculture nutritional data from both 1950 and 1999 for 43 different vegetables and fruits, finding “reliable declines” in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin (vitamin B2) and vitamin C over the past half century. Davis and his colleagues chalk up this declining nutritional content to the preponderance of agricultural practices designed to improve traits (size, growth rate, pest resistance) other than nutrition.
The organic food we eat that comes from living soil has a different effect on our bodies than the food which comes from the dead ground. It provides our bodies with higher levels of good micronutrients proven to ward off diseases such as depression and cancer, making our bodies healthier.
Scientists agree: we have to be more proactive about how we take care of our soil, and how that ultimately affects our health.
Very few people meet 100% of the Recommended Dietary Allowance requirements for every essential nutrient and remember that the RDA is only the minimum amount that’s required to avoid deficiency disorders. It’s certainly not the amount that would optimize health.
Americans are deficient in nutrients and it is actually easy to see why. 1) We don’t eat enough of the right things and 2) the food we are growing is nutrient deficient, because our soil is dead.
We are all getting fat. But we are all starving. Starving for vitamins and minerals.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The key to healthier produce is healthier soil. Simply put, the larger farms should be alternating fields between growing seasons to give land time to restore is a first step. Foregoing pesticides and fertilizers in favor of organic growing methods is good for the soil, the produce and its consumers and is a necessary next step. But if you want to get the most nutritious fruits and vegetables you should buy regularly from local organic farmers.
More important than that is to start your own garden!
Even if you only successfully grow 1 or 2 vegetables, those will be more nutritious than anything you can buy at a store.
But to grow a garden you will need healthy soil. That means you need compost! I used to think that any compost was good compost. But all compost is not equal and here lies the challenge. There is simply no way possible to say all there is about compost in a short blog post. Entire books have been written on the topic and there is so much to learn. So this post aims to give you some tips to get started. But just know, this is by no means all there is to say on the topic and I’ll make some book recommendations below to help you gather more information.
First, a little foundational information:
Nature recycles itself. Everything that grows will eventually die, fall to the earth, and rot or will be eaten by larger animals whose manure falls to the earth and rots. Even the animals themselves eventually fall to the earth. God has designed wild plants to be capable of growing lustily in soil whose rather low fertility is stably maintained by the organic materials rotting on its surface.
Generations ago, the early farming technique in all the English-speaking countries consisted of clearing the forest and then turning under the duff; a thick, half-rotted layer of leaves, bark and other organic matter. This duff is the forest’s capital accumulation of centuries. Dug in, it decomposed far more rapidly, resulting in a huge but temporary increase in fertility. Huge harvests could be enjoyed – for a while. But without the annual nutrient addition from the forests’ falling leaves, with the export of soil nutrients as crops were sent to market, and without the addition of the manure produced by all the animals eating that food, soil fertility decreased, and all too soon the land was “worn out.”
In the industrial era, exhausted land has been temporarily restored to heavy production by the use of chemical fertilizers. Were it not for the use of fertilizers, most of our croplands would be considered “worn out,” and almost any soil a vegetable gardener uses these days may too be infertile to grow most kids of vegetables. So increasing soil fertility is the gardeners primary concern. And even if you aren’t a gardener, this should be your primary concern! Your health is at stake as is that of generations to come.
As mentioned before, there is far too much information on proper composting than can be put into a blog post. But if you are a small, backyard gardener or wanting to at least try your hand at growing, we will list some tips below. If you are wanting to grow a large garden or you have a small farm, I highly recommend getting the book, “Gardening When It Counts” by Steve Solomon. This is a must have book for all gardeners.
If you are starting a garden and are new to this or are concerned about your soil’s nutrients, here are some tips to get you started on making compost. Nothing else you do for your garden will be more important than this.
It is far better to make a “medium quality” compost than none at all. So if you are a small gardener or live in the suburbs, you likely do not have any animal manure at your disposal. It is best for you to build a “once a year heap” rather than one of the many other techniques you’ll find. In temperate climates, the most convenient season for this is early autumn, just after the summer garden has been cleaned up and the deciduous trees (if you have them) have dropped their leaves. If you have livestock or a larger garden, or a big lawn contributing a lot of grass clippings, it might be best to start a new heap every time you’ve accumulated sufficient material.
Here’s what to do. Starting in late autumn, accumulate all new vegetative wastes and kitchen garbage into one great stack of plant material and allow it to dry out over the several months. If anything is more than a foot long, use a sharp machete or cutters to chop it up into smaller bits while it is still green and tender. This material, topped off by a large addition from the autumn garden cleanup, is what gets composted. If you are like us and have no neighbors nearby complaining about an untidy heap of dry vegetation, you can spread all the new stuff on top of the pile in the order that it appears. Vines, kitchen compost bucket, trimmings or outer leaves of lettuce or carrot and beet tops, etc.
If you are a city or suburban gardener, or those with a need to tidiness then you might wish to make some sort of corral for these materials. You may also be adding grass clippings (we have no lawn as our place is surrounded by native vegetation that is roughly mowed!) At this point, remember, you are just gathering materials for your pile, not actually making the pile yet.
If you do use grass clippings, it is far better to allow them to dry for 24 hours before you rake them up and spread them thinly atop the pile to fully dry out. By making this “hay” in this way, you prevent the clippings from heating up (and therefore losing nitrogen) before they dry out. You want nitrogen in your heap and in your garden.
After the first frost comes, and after the autumn garden clean up, you’ll have built a large heap of well-mixed dry material, the result of months of layering fresh vegetation and kitchen garbage. You want to make things uniformly blended because as the materials are made into compost, you want the average carbon/nitrogen of the initial heap to be fairly uniform and hopefully near the 25:1 (carbon to nitrogen ratio) range or below. You might be wondering how to figure this out without a chemistry set?
Well, this is basic composting 101 so by following these general guidelines you should get close to this ratio.
Put nothing woody, nothing with even thin bark on it, no tree trimmings and no hedge trimmings. Try to keep wood out of your compost. The carbon/nitrogen ratio of woody materials is way too high and will degrade your compost quality.
If you have a lot of woody materials you can consider making a separate pile just for it and plan on waiting at least 2 years before using it. It will make a slow working, lower temperature heap and would be good enough to spread it as mulch under ornamentals or under your fruit trees.
After a year’s accumulation of dried garden vegetation and kitchen garbage becomes a compost heap, you’ll need to add the following material:
Water: Enough water to thoroughly moisten the entire mass of dry vegetation. Sprayer hose or even a garden watering can. Or you can spread the whole mass out and wait for rain and heap it up again afterwards!
Soil: Soil in a compost heap fills the same function as moderator rods in a nuclear reactor. It slows the process down a bit and captures the radiation – not of the neutrons, as in the case of a reactor, but of the nitrates. When the heap stats working, proteins in the decomposing vegetation will be broken down into ammonia, a gas. Without soil close by, ammonia will escape into the atmosphere and be lost, to the sad detriment of your compost.
Strong stuff: You’ll want something with a carbon/nitrogen ratio much lower than that of the dry vegetation. A nd enough of these strong stuff that will lower the average C/N of the entire heap well below that 25:1 ratio. The finest thing to use for this purpose is truly fresh ruminant manure without any bedding. Horse, and cow is not has high in nitrogen as chicken manure. You can sometimes purchase this at box stores like Lowes. You can sometimes find local farmers who sell rabbit manure. But if you can’t find any of these you can look into getting seedmeal. It is the lease desirable however, because it is twice as potent as chicken manure.
Build all this up using your hands or a pitchfork to lay out layers of all of the materials going into the heap.
Try to layer 8 inches of dry stuff you have been piling up to dry, then soil, then the strong stuff, then water. Keep on layering until you have used all the materials you have.
Within 2 days it should be heating up.
Within a few weeks the fermenting heap should sag a bit.
If you live where winter is severe, you can turn the heap before there is any chance that things will freeze solid. No matter where you live, turn it at least once by the time 5 weeks has passed. You can do this by just turning it over to a new spot –perhaps where you once had all the dry vegetation sitting that went into the heap originally.
A compost heap that did not contain bark, twigs or sawdust will be done enough to use when it is dark brown in color, is crumbly and loose, has a pleasant odor, and contains nothing that resembles the stuff it was originally made from. It will likely contain some worms.
A compost heap that contained bark, twigs or sawdust might be cool and look done after a few turns, but it will still have a high C/N and might not grow vegetables well until another entire year and a few more turns has passed. There will be little volume left after that, and probably most of the value will have off-gassed. So best to keep these items out of your compost pile.
In most cases, gardens can’t be run off of the materials you have on hand for your compost pile. You will likely need to buy a few things to amend it such as the manure or even some mushroom compost found at local box stores. You can get creative over time in finding things to add to your pile.
Coffee grounds from a local shop (but they should best be organic if possible)
Rotted manure from a local horse riding stable (this is excellent and they probably want to get rid of it!)
Grow a comfrey patch and add the soil and leaves from that to your help –comfrey has an enormous output of mineral-rich biomass and can make the entire household operation a closed biological system. It is an extraordinary, deeply rooting, aggressively growing plant whose leaves can be cut over and over during spring and summer. These leaves can be soaked and made into a “tea” and added to your compost pile.
Have your children start a “worm farm” and add those and the water draining from those to your pile.
But whatever you choose, you can use the materials you DO have to get yourself started on a compost pile. This alone will increase the nutrition of the veggies you grow in your home garden. With some practice now, you’ll learn more each year and increase your growing ability. Why not start now? You’ll reap the rewards!
Books we recommend:
Gardening When it Counts by Steve Solomon
Russian Comfrey: A Hundred Tons an Acre of Stock Feed or Compost for Farm Garden OR Small-holding by Lawrence Hills
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for the Vegetable Gardener. By Suzanne Ashworth
The Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman
Plowman’s Folly by Edward Faulkner