The Soil: A Gift from Nature
from issue: 39-4
The Soil: A Gift from Nature
by Christopher Cumo of Canton,OH
Some 2000 years ago a handful of Roman writers, themselves skillful farmers, championed the soil as the foundation of a farm’s success. This insight remains true today and has guided my own approach to the soil. For about 30 years I have tended a large vegetable garden and a small orchard of fruit trees. From the outset I have followed the Roman precepts of working with nature, not against it. This insight cannot be more urgent than today, when all of us are struggling with finite resources.
For this reason I do not use a roto-tiller or other machines, partly because they burn fossil fuels of some type, usually gasoline or diesel, both distillates of petroleum. According to some experts we will have exhausted the world’s reserves of petroleum by 2100 at current rates of consumption. Mechanized farming is also problematic because it emits large amounts of greenhouse gases and other pollutants into the atmosphere. The result is global warming and climate change.
Conscious of these hazards, I have always relied on the spade as my primary tool for preparing the soil. True, the exertion may be arduous, but I believe strongly in President Theodore Roosevelt’s idea that people should lead “strenuous lives.” Robust physical activity is essential to the maintenance and enhancement of health. My spade dictates two periods of vigorous activity: spring and autumn. Because my garden is large the need to spade every square inch may require as many as three days, though I am usually able to pack all my effort into a single day in spring and another in autumn.
My purpose in spring is to aerate the soil at depth. I dig the ground to a depth of two full spades, mixing the soil with great care and energy. This is a time of intimate communion with the earth. Being a tactile person, I pick up clods of soil along the way, appraising the amount of water in them. I break them apart, deriving in many cases what seems akin to a fine but moist powder. My soil is dark and rich, from decades of the addition of organic matter. Consequently my soil is comparatively lightweight and the chore of spading is less imposing than one might imagine. I do not incorporate anything into the soil at this time. Rather the accumulation of organic matter is a season long process.
Spring is, however, a time of experimentation. I have read that President Thomas Jefferson, himself a consummate farmer, designed a plow that would bring the subsoil to the surface, giving plants something akin to a new soil on which to grow. I decided to test Jefferson’s idea by digging down into the soil about two feet, whereupon I hit the subsoil. I uplifted several square feet of subsoil, arduous work to be sure, putting the topsoil in its place. With the subsoil atop my garden, I spent several years growing various plants: peas, beans, tomatoes and other edibles. The performance was not outstanding. The subsoil, a heavy clay, deterred me from trying potatoes or any other tuber or root crop. It held water well, but when it dried I had trouble resaturating it. None of my plants thrived, possibly because, as I have since read, clay subsoil may contain toxic levels of aluminum. Consequently I do not advocate any attempt to disturb the subsoil. Leave it in place.
Only after planting do I begin adding organic matter to the soil. Because I cut grass in summers to augment my income, I bring home plenty of grass clippings and in the fall leaves and pine needles. These do not go to already overburdened landfills but become the nutrients my plants crave. With a rake I spread this organic matter lavishly between the rows of my plants. Over the course of a growing season, a thick blanket of grass clippings and such will manage weeds. In this sense the arduous work of spading yields the almost effortless plentitude of summer. My spade is well worn but my hoe looks new. The bottom layer of grass clippings decomposes, providing an instant and continuous supply of nutrients. Consequently I have never needed to add synthetic fertilizers to my soil.
In addition my wife’s Shih Tzu has led me to set aside a corner of the garden for him. The question of what to do with dog excrement is never easy to answer. Several gardening books have cautioned against its use as manure, but as a practical matter options are few. One may collect it in plastic bags for inclusion with the trash, but this exacerbates the by now obvious problem of overburdened landfills. I have chosen instead to work this manure into the soil in the aforementioned corner of my garden, planting this site next year. Of course I must rotate portions of my garden for this purpose, but experience tells me that the incorporation of dog manure works. Next year’s crops are always bountiful on soil so treated.
Autumn brings perhaps the toughest work. Now I must spade under all the grass clippings, leaves and pine needle from a full summer and autumn of landscaping. Again double digging is essential as I thoroughly mix soil and organic matter. By the end of this work I have a beautiful, barren garden, the topsoil giving no hint of the plentitude of organic matter buried beneath. The results are hard to overstate. All this organic matter decays over winter to leave a black, rich humus that has transformed my soil. Thirty years ago my garden had large pockets of very sandy soil that I found difficult to work and infertile. Other sections tended toward clay, which also was not easy to work. Today my soil is a uniform, extremely fertile loam that is easy to work. In working with nature, nature has enriched my soil, an example of organic farming at its best. You can do the same.