The Call and Times, Column 7 – Get Outside and Get Your Hands Dirty

7 04 2014

(April 4, 2014)

The Urban Farmer

Get Outside and Get Your Hands Dirty

If you’re like me, you’ve watched in delight over the last two weeks, as the Earth has jolted awake from a long, cold, snowy winter. The birds have resumed their song, the trees are budding with the year’s growth, and the earth has that distinct, spongy feel – can you tell how much I like the Spring? It is common gardening knowledge that the first crops of the year – the onions, peas, leafy greens, and brassicas – are to be planted “as soon as the ground can be worked” – and today is that day! So get outside, prepare your soil, and start your spring planting. Before you do that, though, let’s talk a little dirt.

Topsoil is probably one of the most overlooked aspects of farming, urban and rural alike, and yet, in this urban farmer’s humble opinion, it is the glue that holds a healthy farm together. Unfortunately, few people have a good perception of what soil is, where it comes from (and where it goes), and why it is so important. Since now is the ideal time to prepare the soil for the growing season, I figure that this might be a worthwhile discussion.

Topsoil is the upper few inches of the soil, where much of the plants’ root mass is located. Indeed, the topsoil is where most of the Earth’s biological activity takes place, to the tune of tens of billions of microorganisms in each handful of the stuff. The quality of the soil is determined by the presence of organic matter, with healthy topsoil (think the forests of New England) containing upwards of 5%. This organic matter is the key to productive land, and itself consists of this wonderful, somewhat mysterious substance called humus.

Humus (hyoo-muhs) is responsible for most aspects of that vague notion of soil fertility, making humus-rich topsoil one of the most valuable resources we have. For the urban farmer, rich soil is essential in order to have a productive garden. This topsoil stores heat which stimulates growth, holds nutrients that are essential for the plants’ survival, and is capable of the important and somewhat paradoxical task of providing for both good drainage, and also long-term storage of water.

The environment owes its health to the presence of topsoil, which plays a vital role in all of the major nutrient cycles (carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, water) – and, therefore, in filtering the air we breathe and the water we drink. The process of building topsoil stores quite a bit of carbon, which may prove useful in trying to prevent severe climate change. In addition, because topsoil locks in water, when it is managed properly, it prevents the destructive runoff of rainwater into streams and rivers.

Like with so many other resources, the world’s topsoil is being depleted at an incredible rate, and the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of industrial agriculture. By leaving the topsoil exposed to the elements, and by planting nutrient-intensive crops, industrial agriculture actively depletes the soil of its fertility. And by using artificial fertilizers, our agriculture makes no attempt to replace the topsoil that it has depleted. While topsoil loss is not a topic most would find themselves discussing with their dentist or mail-carrier, it’s not for lack of seriousness. Rough calculations from the University of Sydney predict that, if the current trends of topsoil depletion continue, we have around 60 years left before it has all washed away. And without topsoil, there is no conceivable way to grow food. To put it into perspective, many of the world’s deserts are thought to be the product of various causes of topsoil erosion and depletion – and no area is immune to this process.

Faced with this information, you may be asking: What can I do to build my soil? On the scale of an urban farm, there are quite a few ways that we can accomplish this task – and they all reap pretty awesome rewards.

The first challenge is to actively retain the soil’s fertility. Permaculture, the practice of planting perennial food plants that do not require the soil be disturbed, does a great job of building the soil and providing you with food. Similarly, methods like “lasagna gardening”, in which layers of organic material are used to build the soil, eliminates the need for destructive yearly tillage. In addition, the soil can be well-protected if it is mulched, covered with pretty much any (organically-raised) material on hand.

Once this is accomplished, the next step is to build the soil. Replacing artificial fertilizers with renewable ones, like fish meal, blood meal, and bone meal, and planting nitrogen-fixing crops like peas and beans, leaving their roots underground to break down during the winter, can provide a boost of fertility while doing a lot of good for the health of the soil.

And then, there is always compost. The science and art of composting can (and does) fill many books, but the basic idea is to pile lots of organic material – grass clippings and leaves, plant residues and food waste, and even manure (chicken manure is a powerful compost enhancer) – in such a way that it breaks down within a few months. The general rule of thumb is about 50% “browns” (leaves, hay, other dried plant material) and 50% “greens” (grass, food waste, other green plant material). Compost is an incredible fertility enhancer, and because of its high humus content, does a good job of building the topsoil. I strongly encourage everyone to start a compost pile.

Finally, you should aim to integrate your urban farm into a soil-building system, where the output of each element is the input of another. This is too complex a topic to cover extensively here, so let me give you the example of my urban farm from about a year ago. The garden was grown partially from saved seed. The weeds, and other garden and food scraps, were fed to the chickens, whose manure was composted and used to fertilize the garden. The chickens were often allowed to graze in certain areas of the yard, where they kept pest populations to a minimum, cleaned up plant debris, and kept the grass down, all while fertilizing the lawn and thereby building the soil. When all was said and done, this system has built the topsoil on my land, and has increased the amount of food that I can produce.

Historically, so much regard has been given to good soil, both in the practical setting of farms and gardens, and in poetry, literature, art, and even religion. It is surprising, and very disconcerting, that this is no longer true. Our culture, our society, is dependent on the topsoil for nearly every aspect of our existence. From food, fiber, and wood, to the air we breathe and the water we drink, we are indebted to the services that topsoil delivers, without asking much in return. Entire civilizations have gained their footing because they settled in an area of rich topsoil – and crumbled once the soil’s fertility had been exhausted. Like the underground freshwater aquifers, the coal and oil deposits, and the health of the climate, good topsoil is a natural resource that we are using much quicker than nature can repair and replace it.

Soil is the essential step between death and life, and in that way, closes a vital loop that allows for life to grow and flourish on this ball of dirt we call home. Providing for our own soil fertility places us closer to a state of self-sufficiency, in which we are able to live using only our land and our human ingenuity. This is the model that we really need to adopt if we want our grandkids to enjoy the same life that we enjoy today. As the philosopher, Wendell Berry, puts it, “The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.” In the soil rests the sustenance of life – so we have to get our hands dirty.

My column appears on the first Friday of each month in The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times. The above article is the property of The Woonsocket Call and The Pawtucket Times, and is reprinted here with permission from these publications. These are excellent newspapers, covering important local news topics with voices out of our own communities, and skillfully addressing statewide and national news. Click these links to subscribe to The Woonsocket Call or to The Pawtucket Times. To subscribe to the online editions, click here for The Call and here for The Times. They can also be found on Twitter, @WoonsocketCall and @Pawtuckettimes.