Feeding the soil that feeds us

Feeding the soil that feeds us.

June 1, 2010 | | Leisure

Hockley Valley tends to sharp drainage, lots of sand and little organic material – unless you strike it rich and sit on some peaty loam bequeathed to you by deposits from ancient flowing water.

On our property, we got more glacial till than soil. So the amending process involves some ingenuity and the season-long process of composting.

What is desired is soil rich in nutrients and without pesticide residues. We don’t want to add fertilizer that came to life in a mine or petrochemical plant. Spongy and water-retentive texture is a big plus. And the presence of worms is always a bellwether of any success in getting the mixture right. If the plants are healthy, there seem to be fewer insect problems as well.

The process begins in the autumn as leaves are gathered and put into  8’x 8′ bins of loosely stacked logs (see photo).

We have two of these and they are full by the time the snow flies. Over winter the leaves break down and produce a pleasant-smelling, musty leaf duff at about half the original volume. Other garden waste is also binned as the autumn garden is cleaned up. So we have a good supply of brown organic material awaiting a catalyst and some mixing.

Springtime means that the grass is growing and almost none of the grass clippings are left on the lawns. No spray goes onto the grass to kill weeds. They are dug out or cut up. The green grass is mixed with garden waste and leaf mould and put in the wire cages (see below), which are nothing more than steel T-posts surrounded by 2″x 2″ mesh welded-wire fence.

As they are filled, saplings are passed through the wire on the sides to provide the front. Each is a cube of about 4′ in size and we have made five bins in a row.

Why? Because the compost loves to “cook”. And the stuff that makes it cook is fresh, moist grass.

If this seems unlikely, make a pile of grass clippings and leave them for 24 hours. Then plunge your hand into the centre of the grass. Warn your partner that you are about to do so, because a scream will ensue from the burned fingers that emerge. It gets hot as oxidation goes on to break down stalky materials and kill weed seeds.

When one bin has cooked down in volume, then it is turned over into the next bin with more grass and the process continues. No extra moisture is added. After a turn or two (with about a month between), it has the consistency of loose loam. And onto the vegetable garden it goes.

Lest anyone think that the mixing and cooking process is my province, it is the flower gardener who turns it over, mixes it up and allows me to blanket the vegetable patch with this recycled nutrition. I’ll cut lawns, rake leaves, build bins and happily plant and tend to the produce.

Year by year the garden soil improves and we get a compost bin and grass cutting workout as part of the process.

No gym required!

About the Author More by George Knowles

George Knowles gardens at Larkspur Hollow in the Hockley Valley.

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