As we move deeper into food production, it’s important to remember where our food comes from: the soil. Whether we are fruitarians, herbivores, or carnivores, the root of nutrition is all the same. Grains, vegetables, fruit, and pulses sprout forth from the earth, and wherever down the food chain they may land, those plant-based treats are at the heart of what we all eat, from the lowliest fungi to the mightiest lion.
To make a long diversion brief, we have got to take care of the soil. Not only does the soil give our plants the buffet of nutrients we are after, but also, in doing so, our fruit and veggies (and nuts and grains and beans and so on) taste better because they have that huge palette of vitamins and minerals from which to layer the flavor. Grow a tomato in good soil and there is no comparison to those hydroponic supermarket items that have become the substandard standard.
Unfortunately, in the last few decades especially, humanity has not done the most stellar job of this seemingly simple task. Mass agriculture and processed foods focus more on taking the earth’s resources than working in a harmonious cycle with them. The crux of good gardening is replenishing the soil every time each season, and that’s something we can do natural, no box-store bought amendments necessary.
Organic material is the answer to so many things in the garden, and one of the highest iterations of organic material is compost. It’s teeming with vitamins, minerals, micronutrients, and soil life. It also helps with balancing pH levels in the soil, keeping things aerated, and maintaining moisture levels in dry times. Make compost at home every year and add it to the garden to keep the soil full of vigor.
Use Organic Mulch
Mulch has a lot of benefits. It keeps the soil moist, cool, and stationary. It also provides habitat for soil life and forms a foamy layer of humus (not hummus) atop the topsoil. In the process, organic materials—leaves, straw, wood chips, etc.—cycle nutrients back into the soil as they decompose atop. Adding a thick layer of organic mulch to the garden every year will add lots of minerals without buying amendments.
Spread Wood Ash
First things first, it’s good practice for those of us who use fireplaces, firepits, or wood-burning cookstoves to use actual wood, no chemicals, or pressed logs. Secondly, we can probably source a lot of this firewood from fallen branches and trees, and we can certainly avoid virgin forest when cooking our grits. Ultimately, we need to keep all of those ashes, which are full of calcium and trace minerals, to sprinkle on our garden every year. Wood ash is a fantastic soil amendment many of us produce right at home.
Grow Green Manure
There are plants that we can grow in the garden, particularly when we aren’t growing crops, that can simply be for the soil’s benefit. For example, we can grow fava beans or rye in the winter for no reason more than to cut them down, drop them straight onto the garden soil and allow them to decompose there. This helps us prevent unwanted plants from growing when crops aren’t occupying garden space, and it helps us feed the soil life atop the soil with fresh salad.
Cultivate Dynamic Accumulators
Along the same lines as green manure, there are some plants that we can include in the garden because we want them to pull nutrients from deep below the surface, beyond the reach of other roots, and make them accessible via decomposing leaves at the soil surface. Dynamic accumulators can have other uses, too. Comfrey is medicinal, and bees love it. Borage is edible, and bees love it. There are a host of plants with deep taproots that are so much more than “weeds”.
Whether it’s raking the yard, digging in the neighbor’s trash bags, or coordinating with city services, leaves are available in abundance every fall. They are full of minerals, trace elements, and vitamins. Leaves can be piled to make easy compost. They can be saved for mulch in spring and summer gardens. Whatever the case may be, the idea is to save leaves and applying them to the garden in one fashion or another. Trees are the ultimate dynamic accumulators, and the big ones drop hundreds of pounds of leaves every year.
One of the major problems with market gardens, in particular mass agriculture, is that the food is grown and shipped away. That means all the nutrients taken up in producing that squash or the bunch of beets is boxed up and carted off elsewhere. But, nature doesn’t work that way. The idea in nature is that food produced from the earth is eaten and redeposited nearby, keeping all those nutrients cycling through the ecosystem. In our gardens, we can do this via composting toilets, worm farms, and compost bins. If it’s all shipped away, the soil is constantly being depleted. Eventually, the cornucopia runs out.
Undoubtedly, if the soil is utterly lacking in something, we may have to go to an amendment to get a quick return, but importing minerals is not something upon which to rely. It’s not sustainable. We could be producing rich, rollicking garden soil with resources found right in our own neighborhoods. That’s just as important as growing our own food!
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