Monday, May 6, 2013

Building the Land: A Soil Love Affair

I have to confess: I'm more than a little in love with good soil. Rich tilth and an abundance of humus just makes me giddy. But the truth of living here in the heart of Dixie is that much of this Southern soil is primarily clay which means soil that is clumpy, easily compacted, and often with poor drainage.

This can be extremely discouraging if you're looking at your garden wondering how difficult it's going to be to break up those fist-sized clumps of dried clay soil with your hoe (hint: very difficult). It can be easy to look at the soil as your foe, something that must be vanquished. This has more or less become the attitude of modern agriculture towards the land, but there's a different and much less frustrating way to look at the soil, no matter its shortcomings.

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”   

-- Wendell Berry

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” 
-- Aldo Leopold

When it comes to caring for the land that sustains us all, the short-term consumer approach that has become standard in American culture is devastating. In the Midwest, America's farming heartland with its gorgeous two-foot-deep topsoils created by thousands of years of prairie organic matter building, is losing inches of that beautiful rich soil yearly due to poor soil conservation practices. The more soils become degraded, the more fertilizer must be used, and the more pesticides and herbicides must be used because plants are under extra stress. We are sucking the life out of the soil and when the life-giving capacity is gone, it will take a long time to build it back.

True agricultural sustainability takes a huge paradigm shift. We must change from asking, "What can I get from this land?" to asking, "How can I best be a steward of this land?" It's a difficult shift because it requires patience, delayed gratification, and a long view of the land. We've become a transient people and it's no longer typical for a family to buy a piece of land or a house and plan to stay in it for 50 years. We don't often see a need to think that far down the road about what consequences our actions may have.

If we can shift our thinking to more long-term, we can learn to see our land, whether we own it or rent it, as an environment and figure out how best to preserve and build each individual environment.

Soil organic matter is the most vital to having a good garden, but Alabama soils are typically composed less than 3% organic matter. At least 5-8% is ideal, but this takes a long time to build. We see our soil as the most important resource on our farm, so our goal is to do all we can to enrich it with as much organic material as we possibly can.

The last couple years our preferred form of organic material has been horse manure from a local stable. They advertise on Craigslist and for $15 will pile high the composted manure into our giant pickup truck bed. Last year we got one truckload, this year we've gotten two more. We compost every food scrap we get and by adding rabbits and sheep to our farm livestock we hope to provide on-farm fertility that doesn't come in a bag or a bottle or need to be hauled in a truck.

We've seen encouraging change even in this first year on the farm. Last year we tilled up a section of our front yard and spread the manure on it (about 3 inches deep across the entire tilled area) and used it as a garden. This year we expanded that tilled area -- and the area that did not have manure spread on it last year is the typical clumpy clay. The area where we did spread manure is close to being a great soil -- easily worked, good drainage, and not as compacted after rain.

Our garden soil, in its natural state. Pretty clumpy there, fella.

Our garden soil, after a year of cultivation and plenty of manure. Much nicer texture.

Cover crops are also vital to building soil organic matter and we will talk about that later. We'll probably be seeding some kind of cover crop in the fall to grow over the winter.

If within our time on this farm we can add even 2% organic matter to our soil, we'll be happy farmers.

"If your gravestone could read, 'here lies a person who left his land with over 5 percent organic matter in it,' you could rest assured that you had contributed as much good to the earth as any famed scientist, philosopher or philantropist. Maybe more. And in the bargain, you would have achieved a sort of immortality. For your children's children and their offspring will see in their day, when the supply of life's necessities is really critical, the importance of organic matter in the soil and they will revere the memory of those people who are now trying to halt man's careless waste of such a vital natural resources."

-- Gene Logsdon


  1. This is beautiful. I appreciate the quotes you included. I feel this way about our garden beds amid the fescue expanses - like I'm giving something back. But even better, it's giving to US while we're giving to IT. The earth gives me the roots and shoots and seeds and leaves and fruits, and I give her the scraps - and she just keeps giving. Astounding.

    It makes me wonder where we'd be if every family had just a couple of rows of cultivated land.

    1. I like the way your brain thinks, Lauren. :) Ah, what our gardens give to us!!!

      I wonder how much more appreciation we'd have for the land that sustains us if everyone had just a tiny garden. It's hard to nourish the earth and plants without coming to a deeper understanding of how we're all interconnected and how vital it is to care for what gives to us in nature. <3