Posts Tagged ‘soil’

Losing Topsoil

The other day, I was on a bodybuilding site reading through a comment battle between vegetarians and vegans versus the meat eaters. Yes, this is a form of entertainment for me. One of the commenters pointed out that veganism isn’t the solution since we may well run out of topsoil in 60 years.


Running out of oil makes sense. So does running out of potable water. But soil? Ok, so I guess I knew that it was being degraded, but it’s really scary to think that I might live long enough to see the end of enough topsoil to support agriculture. With only a moment of research, Time magazine supported that assertion for me. The article goes on to point out that what is missing from the soil will be missing from the plants grown in the soil. So even before the soil is considered to be unusable, it’s already being less useful to those of us depending on it. Another point the article makes is that degraded soil doesn’t hold water. The worse the soil is, the less effective irrigation is.

First- why are we destroying our soil? The short answer is, we are taking and not giving. When we do give, it may well be poisoned. On most conventional farms, they’re simply too big to do things like till in nicely decomposed manure in the spring, or spread fresh manure after harvest in the fall. Spring in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania was invariably announced with the smell of manure. The Amish farms would start their field prep by spreading the manure from their cows on their farm fields. Given a choice, Amish fruits and vegetables were the way to go when we were growing up, when we didn’t get enough out of our own garden. However big the Amish farm is, though, it is just a drop in the bucket compared to the operations that supply grocery stores. A family-sized herd of cows won’t give nearly enough manure to replace the organic material carted away to ship to the store. Their animal counterpart, CAFOs, can’t really be used, either, since the waste they produce is pretty much toxic. In short, we are pulling out organic material, vitamins, and minerals, and all we put back is “NPK.” Because, given no other choice, plants can more or less be grown on primarily nitrogen, phosphorus  and potassium. While organics are a step up from conventional produce, if you’re buying them from a big company, they’re probably still guilty of taking without giving. They just leave less poison behind.

Second- how does this affect me? When it comes down to it, I admit that what gets me moving the fastest on an issue is if I know it will have a major impact on me. This will. Already, conventionally grown vegetables (and the meat that is grown on conventionally-raised grains) offers me less vitamins and minerals than it could. Than I need. As the population grows (seriously, enough already, people) and the arable land shrinks, food prices will go up. Which means I will be paying more money for an increasingly inferior product. The more soil we lose, the more potable water we lose, since degraded soil just can’t hold on to it. I think everyone can recognize how bad that is.

So now what? I don’t own a farm that I can convert to something more sustainable. (If you do own a farm, though, that is something to keep in mind.) I do have a back yard, though. Along with the garden, I can build soil in the rest of the yard by creating a place where native plants and grasses can grow and do their thing. Going native generally means fewer chemicals (if any) and once it is established, way less upkeep. Having a healthy lawn also means that when I’ve had it with food prices, it’s much easier to convert to a healthy garden. I will already be working on the topsoil, including encouraging the growth of all the creepy-crawlies that keep a garden healthy. I can also make a more concerted effort to support those that support our soil. Buy local, buy organic, and buy from small producers. 100 acres is much easier to take good care of than 1,000. 10 acres they should know even more intimately. Buy grass-finished meat. Not only is it better for you, but it is a lot better for the environment. If you live in an apartment, ask a friend if you can help in their garden, or hijack a corner of their lawn to start your own. There aren’t many that would turn down help with pulling weeds or free, fresh veggies.

Will any or all of this fix the mess we’ve made of our farmland? Not hardly. But the less we rely on conventional farming, the less affected we will be when it collapses. The more we support responsible and sustainable farming, the more it will be seen as a viable option for those conventional farmers that just can’t do it any more. I doubt there is a single farmer out there that actually wants to destroy their fields. It behooves us to make conventional farming less profitable than sustainable farming. Help the farmers help the soil. We can’t live without it.

Prepping Another Bed

No longer my bed. They're much more on top of these things.

No longer my bed. They’re much more on top of these things.

I finally got my butt in gear and went to visit my bed at the Ranch Community Garden yesterday. I had two last year, but there was a waiting list for new gardeners, so I gave one back. After all, I’m getting a mighty slow start, and there’s only one of me, so it’s not like I really need two beds. I can feel good, though, that the person that has my bed got one that was worked correctly last year (if a bit neglectfully) and put to bed for the winter in a way that would set them up for a successful year. They, also, are clearly more on top of things than I am.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

My bed. Still snugly covered up from the winter.

Giving up a bed also means that I only had to double-dig one four-by-eight plot. I didn’t do it last year- the beds were brand new and the soil hadn’t settled, yet, so it wasn’t really necessary. “I get why you double-dug the potatoes,” you’re thinking. “They need lots of vertical growing space underground. But why are you double-digging the bed that’s getting tomatoes and peppers?” Good question. Several reasons. The first being- I didn’t do it last year. I didn’t know the soil two shovel-lengths deep. Now I know that it’s lovely and even, without any of the crazy sand or clay patches that you can expect to find in urban soil. The fact that it has been an empty lot some ways away from the building of the church that owns the land would explain it. It is essentially un-touched soil. Now I know that under the first layer, I don’t run into rock-hard, compacted soil. It was pretty easy to dig through.

Hello, there. Don't you look healthy.

Hello, there. Don’t you look healthy.

When I was digging through, I also met enough worms that I kidnapped three to keep Herman company in Showcase 2. I was very happy to see that the decomposer population, at least the big ones, is in good shape. I don’t think that you should populate your garden with lots of imported critters. Most won’t survive Colorado, and those that do might become an invasive species. However, moving worms three blocks away from their home works fine. If you are establishing a new garden, ask a gardener friend if they have any worms to spare so you can jump-start your own population.



The last benefit is adding loft to the soil. It started out about a quarter of an inch below the top of the 2×6 board edging. It ended being an average of two inches higher than the board. Since the only thing I added was a handful of blood meal to help the nitrogen levels, that lift came from all the space that air and water now has for wending its way around the roots of the plants. I also know that my plants will be able to get their roots well below the bottom of the board edging. Raised beds are pretty and, in a public garden, useful for making sure that you stick with just the plot you paid for. However, they dry out more easily than beds that are flush with the ground. In wet areas, this is good. In the South West, though, there are some Native Americans that actually garden in lowered garden beds due to the need to preserve every drop of water we have. The deeper the plant roots go, the more water-efficient they are. This is good for both gardeners that forget to water, and ones that are on water restrictions, as we will be this summer.



What about no-till techniques? I think there’s a lot to be said for them. Particularly when farming on a massive scale, since plowing exposes a lot of topsoil to potential erosion. However, unless you have lucked into perfect soil, I think that for at least the first year or two, really getting down and dirty in your garden is a good idea. Will I go with a more minimal turnover for my RCG bed next year? Quite possibly. I now have the information that it is good soil, and no one will be walking on it to compact it. Will I be going with a more minimal technique for Showcase 2 next year? No. I walk on it, sometimes, and so does the dog when she’s being a monster. Also, it does have those sand patches that still need to be mixed into the rest of the bed for a more even texture. That one probably needs to double-dug for at least two more years before it’s even enough to go for a more minimal digging-over. That might be enough time to train myself and the dog to stop walking on it. Maybe.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I'm mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won't need to grow through it.

Re-covered with the old straw to preserve moisture until I put plants in. Since I’m mostly transplanting into this bed, the straw may well stay all summer, since seedlings won’t need to grow through it.

Double-digging, again

Gathering the tools.

Gathering the tools.

It’s raining. The horizon-to-horizon grey is doing my vitamin D level no favors, but it is a lovely, soaking rain, rather than the kind that pounds down and just runs off the surface, so it is good for my freshly-planted potatoes. If we can’t have it all, we need to be happy with what we’ve got.

It's fluffing up nicely.

It’s fluffing up nicely.

We were slow to order the potatoes this year for Showcase 2, but with as miserable as the weather was for much of April, I wouldn’t have gotten them in the ground at the “right” time anyway. I would have preferred to turn the potato bed at least a few days before I planted, but I really needed to get the seed potatoes in the ground before I totally missed the planting window. Therefore, I dug the bed over and planted on the same day.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

This spot may well have been where they dumped the sand needed for construction when the house was built.

In an effort to rotate crops as much as possible in our two-bed garden, the potatoes are going in the bigger bed this year, and other things will be going in what was the potato bed last year. But, whether we are planting potatoes or anything else, we need to prep the bed. For me, that means double-digging. We did this last year, so why do we have to do it again? In part, it is because I was walking on the garden bed during the winter when I was taking things to the compost pile. However, there’s more to it. Double-digging last year started to improve the structure of the soil. We want soil clumps interspersed with spaces big enough for air and water to circulate to the roots. Double-digging this year will help fluff up the soil again, to encourage this structure. Digging by hand, as I mentioned last year, does less damage to any existing structure the soil has. If your garden is small enough, try to do it that way instead of using something like a rototiller. You can even skip the gym, that day, since you’ll be getting a workout.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

These are not helpful in a root-vegetable plot.

There are other benefits as well. I dug out a few more rocks that I hadn’t gotten last year. Rocks, and most everything else, migrate through the soil. Long-time gardeners can tell you that you might think you’ve de-rocked a garden or field, but you never really do. I also ran across several serious sand patches. The more this garden gets dug over, the more the sand will be mixed in with the rest of the soil, leading to a more even texture throughout the garden. Untouched soil will change from place to place, but soil in urban areas may well have a sand pit smack beside a solid patch of clay. Modern building techniques don’t generally take into account saving topsoil and not disturbing the underlying layers more than necessary. It is an unfortunate fact of life that if you are in a house, you are probably going to be restoring soil rather than just improving on a good thing. The last perk is that I’m re-introducing myself to my soil and the things that live in it. Because I’m not trotting across the surface following a machine, I have the time to see that there aren’t many worms, still, but one of them is an absolute monster.

I'm naming him Herman.

I’m naming him Herman.

Once it was dug over, I laid out the seed potatoes in four quadrants to see which ones needed to be cut in pieces to fill up their quadrant. Last year I cut first and measured later, forgetting that seed potatoes aren’t as willing to be held for a second year as other seeds. They got buried about 6 or 8 inches deep in the nice, loose soil. I then re-covered the patch with straw to help preserve the moisture in the soil, and gave it a good watering. I am planning on using more straw this year than I did last year, in an effort to make the most of the water I do put in the garden.

Plotting one's plot is a good idea.

Plotting one’s plot is a good idea.



It's kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

It’s kinda surprising how easy it is to hide all that work.

Traveling by Train

This was being built in South Station in Boston. It's huge and intricate.

This was being built in South Station in Boston. It’s huge and intricate.

I’ve decided I like traveling by train. I come from a family of sailors, so the old saw “it’s about the journey, not the destination” was part of growing up. After all, if there isn’t enough wind, you might not get to your destination, so the journey would be all you had. There’s also nothing quite like skimming across the water hearing nothing but the sounds of the waves and the wind through the rigging. You may as well enjoy it. Travelling itself was also an event once upon a time. When it took days or weeks to get to a destination, it wasn’t just to pop in for a cup of coffee between tennis lessons and book club. Going somewhere was an event for both the traveler and the one being traveled to.

Somewhere in Iowa, I think. Look at how rich and dark their soil is! Can I take some home with me?

Somewhere in Iowa, I think. Look at how rich and dark their soil is! Can I take some home with me?

When I decided to visit my family for Thanksgiving, there were three choices for travel. I hate flying. Well, that’s not true, really. I like flying. What I hate is rushing to the airport, waiting in line, being inspected, having my stuff inspected, rushing to my gate, waiting at the gate, and finally being shoehorned into a seat that, let’s be honest, just ain’t big enough for a significant portion of America whether you are measuring height or width. Option two was to drive. I like to drive, and I have driven myself from the East Coast to Colorado. That would mean that I could take anything I wanted, and I would be travelling on my own schedule. The problem there is that I couldn’t do anything else for the two- or three-day drive, and as much as I love my car, she isn’t super gas-efficient. That’s not helpful for my wallet or the environment. That left the train. I was allowed two carry-ons and two checked bags, which is all I can carry, anyway. I would have hours in which I was neither asleep, nor occupied by another task, which would let me read things I’d been putting off for a while. It is also far and away more fuel efficient to travel by train than by plane or car.

I love how water just happens in New England. (Sadly, trains don't stop for photo ops.)

I love how water just happens in New England. (Sadly, trains don’t stop for photo ops.)

I came to the conclusion on the journey that we need to go back to shipping our politicians via train for their campaign travels.  There were stretches of countryside, and for most of the trains we were up high enough to see quite a bit of it. Seeing the differences as we went along was fascinating. Every town that we went through, however, we got to see the armpit of. Even if you do live on the “right” side of the tracks, if you live near the tracks, it probably isn’t the good part of town. Chicago, in particular, was tough to look at. I think it would be good for more politicians of all stripes to step away from the people that go to $1,000-a-plate fundraising dinners and take a closer look at how the rest of us live.

Chicago, not far out of the station.

Chicago, not far out of the station.

The main drawback to train travel is that not everyone can take the time for it. I appalled a few people by mentioning that the trip from Colorado Springs to my friends in Baltimore was 48 hours. With layovers, the trip from Boston back home will be more like 60 hours. I happened to luck out with having both the time and the money to afford it. If I had been working with the usual two or three weeks vacation over a year, I wouldn’t want to waste four days on travel that I could have been spending with family and friends. (I also shocked a few by mentioning that I had done 18-hour stretches on trains without wifi! The horror!)

That is encouraging, isn't it?

That is encouraging, isn’t it?

Then, there were the people. They were all over the spectrum. Some of the more memorable ones included the woman that was having a phone conversation behind me at 1 AM. Her vocabulary had all the range of a stereotypical trucker, and I’m not sure I heard a single complementary thing come out of her mouth. This was particularly delightful since my seatmate was 10 years old. On the good side, I talked to a grandmother, a chemist, a soldier (thank you), a pot grower (from Colorado, it was legal), and a delightful young family that was moving to South Dakota. The two girls in that family impressed the heck out of me. They were helpful and cheerful despite the very, very long trip, and the older one was fun to talk to.

There is some hope for this version of transportation, though. Denver's Union Station is having some major renovations done.

There is some hope for this version of transportation, though. Denver’s Union Station is having some major renovations done.

The other drawback to public transportation like trains and buses is that it isn’t terrifically popular in our car- and plane-centric society. The train stations aren’t necessarily as well kept as an airport, and they don’t really have as many amenities. There also aren’t as many transports. I am writing this from a Starbucks in Denver because the only Grayhound bus that goes from here to Colorado Springs leaves 12 hours after my train got in this morning. I checked twice. One. Down from two due to lack of use. Ah well. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people sipping a latte and typing away industriously on their computer in a cafe. I am embracing the journey.


Addendum: I may have to slightly alter the armpit of the town statement, at least for Denver. They’ve done some awesome stuff with the old warehouse district that is, naturally, within spitting distance of the tracks. Funny what you learn on long layovers.

Class: Understanding Front Range Soils

“Soil is precious and we treat it like dirt.”

This class was taught by Jean Reeder, Ph.D. soil scientist. She spent 30 years with the USDA ARS, the agricultural research service. Since retirement, she is now a consultant for the CSU Soil Testing Lab and she is one of the instructors for the Colorado Master Gardener program. She has also discovered that she didn’t really understand the soil in her own back yard. Of natural, agricultural, and urban soils, urban soils are the most complex and the least understood. She has begun applying her skills to changing that.

Anyone who lives in Colorado knows that we face a lot of challenges. Our semi-arid climate is cool with a short growing season, dry, and highly variable in both temperature and precipitation. However, more than 80% of plant problems are because of the soil. It is the fundamental component of the landscape. That makes it the biggest challenge. However, it is also the least understood. We have even less information to go on than most of the country, as our soil is as different as our weather. Where most soil is more acid, ours is alkaline. If you find a native soil around here that is 2% organic matter, you’re doing really well. In Iowa, 6-7% organic matter is perfectly normal. We also have free lime. She told us about one woman she knew that preferred to send her soil samples to a lab in Missouri to be tested. They never tested for free lime, since it isn’t an issue in Missouri.

There were a few main points I got from this class. The first is, test your soil. The old saying is “feed and nurture the soil and the soil will feed an nurture the plants.” That’s true, but how do you know how to nurture it if you don’t know where it is now? Sending off samples for testing is a bit more expensive than picking up a soil test kit at the store. However, you get a lot more information and a lot more accuracy. The other thing is to get it tested locally. I use the CSU service. Granted, the lab is in Fort Collins, which is not exactly around the corner from Colorado Springs, but they know Colorado. They know about free lime and our increasing problem with salt in our soils. They can tell me how to manage it in a way that will work here. The kits you can pick up at the store are apparently usually calibrated for acidic soils, which makes them worse than useless in our alkaline soils. They also don’t come with instructions for fixing any issues you have.

Once you get your test results back, there are a couple of things that it is best to just make peace with. The pH and the texture are almost impossible to change, and any changes may have other consequences. Our soils tend to be more clayey. One apparent solution is to add sand. Aside from the fact that you have to add too much sand for that to be practical, the recipe for concrete is lime and sand. It’s not a guarantee, but if you’re unlucky, you might end up with a concrete slab where you had intended to put in a garden. As for pH, our soils are very well buffered, so they resist being changed. One possible change is to add sulfur. However, if you have a high-calcium soil (lime is usually calcium carbonate), you end up making gypsum. Gypsum is used in places as a fertilizer. However, it is a salt, so you will be increasing the salt content of your soil. The only way to change the pH with any hope of permanence is to manage the garden correctly and consistently for about 50 or 100 years or move to the mountains. There are some old gardens and gardens in the mountains that are slightly acidic. However, those are the exception not the rule.

The result of squished roots and a rough spring.

Now that you have made peace with your texture and pH, it’s time to talk about amendments. All amendments are not created equal. In fact, all compost is not created equal. We do not have naturally saline soils. However, the application of high-salt fertilizers, both organic and not, is turning salt into a problem. There’s a reason people used to salt the fields of their enemies. You can’t grow anything in salted soil and, unless you have massive amounts of high-quality water to flush the salts through the soil layers, it is almost impossible to fix. She did a study of bagged, commercial fertilizer. However, it never got published because the only consistency was that animal-based ones had very high salt content and plant-based ones tended to have merely high salt content. Other than that, there was no telling what would come out of a particular bag. Even if you go natural, there is still a huge variation in what you can get. She showed us numbers of actual fertilizers she had analyzed from non-bagged sources. The numbers were all over the place. Including two that ended up with toxic amounts of trace minerals and several that were going to cause salt issues if they were used with any regularity. If you are considering using your neighbor’s horse manure, she mentioned that what they are fed affects the quality of the manure. The quality of what goes in affects the quality of what comes out the other end. Think about that for a minute. I sure did.

This one isn’t too happy with it’s placement either.

The last major point is compaction. I have run across this as being a problem in gardens before, but she took it to another level. Compacted soil means that the aggregates in the soil, the structure made from the mineral content and the organic material, have been destroyed, which means that there are few if any pores in the soil for air and water to penetrate. If you live in an urban area, it’s best to assume that your soil is compacted. If you are able to do so, you will want to fix that before you put down lawn and gardens, as it is almost impossible to fix later. If your soil has no, or few, pores with air and water, roots will not have anywhere to go, or a reason to go there. The smaller and more restricted a root system is, the smaller the above-ground part of the plant will be. I have notice small trees in “hell strips” between the sidewalk and the road recently that are only leafing out on their lower branches. This is apparently a result of restricted root growth combined with a dry spring. The upper branches had to be sacrificed because the limited roots couldn’t support them in the rough conditions we have had this spring. If it wasn’t trapped between the compaction under the road and the compaction under the sidewalk, the roots would be able to spread out, giving them half a chance to support the growth that had gone on before conditions got bad. When you walk across wet, loose ground once, you just compacted that ground by 75%. If you walk across it four times, now it’s 90% compacted. Now think about the damage a bulldozer or crane will do while the house is being constructed.

The overarching concept from this class is that, with two exceptions, less is more. On average, it takes about 150 years to build an inch of topsoil in nature. Colorado would need more time than average. Therefore, taking 10 years to slowly build a to-die-for garden is still well above average. The fewer amendments you use, the less likely you are to make a mistake. If you salt your garden or add toxic levels of a nutrient, you will be spending a lot of time and money to fix it. Along the same lines, once our native soil has been disrupted, she let me know that it is very hard, very expensive, and often heartbreaking to restore it. The less of the native landscape we disrupt, the less we will have to painstakingly restore. Tilling and other machines tend to break up soil aggregates, affecting the soil structure. Hand-digging is far less likely to do so. What we need more of is patience and knowledge, hence the slightly lengthy post. Your soil is unique. The more information you can gather, and the more time you can spend with it, the better equipped you will be to know how to nurture it.

Class: Gardener’s Ecology Course

This is my second course with Sheridan Samano, but the first one I have completed. She recently retired from teaching college-level biology to focus on her tourism company. Unlike the landscapers and homesteaders I have been learning from, this class felt like a college class. But it was the kind of class you hoped to get, the kind where the professor is so excited about the subject that you can’t help but get caught up in the enthusiasm.

It is a six-hour class. Usually it is broken up over three weeks, but this particular round was two three-hour Saturdays. It was an intense amount of information, but very useful. We covered general ecology information before we moved on to more Colorado-specific information.

Ecology is the study of interactions between an organism and its environment. When we think of this, we tend to think of plants and animals. In fact, ecosystems are named for their dominant plant species. However, it is the abiotic, non-living, factors that determine the dominant plant species. The plants then determine what animals can be supported in that area. What does this mean to a gardener? If you don’t have the right abiotic factors, sunlight, temperature, moisture, etc., then your plants are going to have a difficult if not impossible time surviving. I spent the drive home on the first Saturday noticing that there was still snow on the north-facing slopes despite the unseasonably warm weather. In the northern hemisphere, the north-facing slopes are cooler and wetter than the south-facing slopes, due to less sun exposure. That would not be the place for an early spring garden.

When we were discussing biotic (living) versus abiotic (non-living) factors, it was interesting to note that soil is considered a biotic factor. The minerals worn from rocks are abiotic, but when you add in the organic material and the organisms that make that organic and inorganic material available to plants, it becomes biotic. In other words, it’s a living organism that you can kill. This becomes important when you think about fertilizers. Too much or the wrong thing can kill the soil as much as the plants that are using it.

I am very interested in the idea of making gardening easy. I like to garden, but I have a lot of interests. I only have so much time to devote to each. When you think about fertilizing, instead of automatically dumping on x product, organic or not, at y time because you always do, think about whether or not there’s a need for it. Are you seeing evidence of a lack of particular nutrients? Is it a vegetable garden where you know that you don’t leave any vegetation to decompose for use the next year?Those are the times that Sheridan suggest that you fertilize. That way you are providing what is needed, but no more.

I really enjoyed this class because gardens really are little ecosystems. They can be healthy ones or they can be faltering ones. The more we understand that a garden is more than the plants we thought were pretty and plunked in the garden where we decided they should go, the more we can understand how to help a faltering garden or appreciate one that is a successful balance of so very many variables. I also now have a desire to take a trip out I-70 to the east so that I can watch the march of all the different ecosystems we have, here, in Colorado.