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Re: Community garden nutrient inputs

  • Subject: Re: [cg] Community garden nutrient inputs
  • From: Alliums garlicgrower@earthlink.net
  • Date: Mon, 27 Jan 2003 10:55:51 -0500

Hi, Folks!

 Tamsin Salehian wrote:

As vegetable gardens are constantly harvested, is there a
way with only a small amount of land to make them as self-sufficient as
possible in the community garden context or is it preferable to take
advantage of what others consider wastes and use them? I'd be interested in
hearing what other gardens do...
The most useful workshop I attended at the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture's conference last year was Dr. Ray Weil (Soil Science, University of Maryland -- *brilliant* researcher who can also explain things well -- if you ever have an opportunity to hear him speak, *do it*!) on soil. Here are some of the highlights:

Agriculture degrades soil. How much and over what period of time depends on the crops grown and practices used. Pasture soils, well-managed, can last for triple digit years -- nutrient demanding veggies can deplete soil in under 10 years. So, everyone has to tend to their soil.

Life below soil is just as complicated as life above soil. To radically simplify things, think of soil as having 3 major components: 1) humus/non-living, relatively inert substrate where plants get their nutrients 2) microorganisms, etc. that live in the soil and 3) food for the microorganisms and other soil life.

If your soil has enough of 1) to feed your veggies for the next 50 years, that's great, but if you don't provide 3) so that 2) can continue to live, your soil won't produce for whoever gets your garden after those 50 years! Adding organic matter to the soil isn't so much to feed your plants, it's to keep the soil life going so that the plants can keep going.

However, what and how you add also counts to keep your soil productive. Most plant roots (unfortunately, especially the roots of common crops) DO NOT actually have the strength to push soil around -- instead, they follow the trails already burrowed through the soil by 1) worms 2) microorganisms and 3) the roots of other crops that were left in the soil to rot away. So, if you cover your soil with organic matter, it will prevent erosion and certain types of worms will burrow up, eat the organic matter and then burrow straight down into the soil, but you've only partially fed your soil and if you have hardpan or thick clay soils, your plants will still have a hard time finding places to spread out their roots. (Not having a good root system, of course, makes it harder to have a productive plant.)

If you add cover crops to your rotation, then cut off the tops (to compost, mulch, eat or whatever), the roots that are still left in the ground ALSO become food for all the microorganisms who, of course, spread their own waste products throughout the growing zone which encourages a whole soil food web to happen and ultimately spread plant-available nutrients throughout the soil. It ALSO leaves all these little tunnels throughout the soil (from the roots, from worms, from whatever other little insects/etc. can push soil around getting to whatever they consider food) so that even if you still have clay soil or a hardpan from too much rototilling, etc., your plants' roots can follow these little burrows AND get the nutrients they need to be productive without the entire growing bed having the tilth (fluffy soil that has air, good water retention drainage, organic matter, etc) we'd all love our soils to have.

Weil had a bunch of really cool slides showing plant roots going through these hardpans and worm trails going from an crop residue/leaf layer through the soil. He considers manure to be the best soil amendment although he does say that "manure isn't what it used to be." He feels that feeding your soil with manure, organic mulches and cover crops should keep your soil productive almost as long as a pasture soil and with significantly less labor than some of the "intensive" approaches.

As for what we actually do in our garden, we use a horse manure/straw mix from a local boarding stable (no E. coli in horses -- E. coli is mostly a problem in cattle and pigs -- if you have a source of raw manure, learn about the animal it comes from -- some manure *can* be used raw [rabbit, alpaca] and some should be composted regardless [poultry]), leaves from town folks (lawns are too small for chemical services! ;-D), newspaper and plain brown cardboard for mulching (it's free and urban areas are awash in it -- why grow your carbon when you can gather more than you need from your own neighborhood -- the landfill space you save will probably be Pennsylvania's! ;-P) and leftover Halloween decorations (pumpkins, straw bales and corn shocks).

PA Dept of Enviro Protection has started a program where municipalities can purchase the same $80 composters (covered plastic bin with flip top and grate at the bottom to rake compost out) in Gardener's Supply for $5 and sell them (for the same $5) to residents. Phoenixville declined to participate (:-P), but through the efforts of my state rep, I received an exemption that our community garden can order these composters from the County (in spite of the fact that we are not a municipality), so this year EVERY PLOT at the community garden will have its own composter. Some of us have always composted, but having a covered bin composter in each plot should encourage everyone to amend their plots with the organic wastes from their own households -- thus improving the soil for everyone in the long run.

We also placed our perennial area (which is never rototilled) just past the center of the garden which gives a safe haven to worms and microorganisms when the rototiller comes through. (This placement makes me look so brillant now, but I just put the perennials there because it was next to MY plot and I thought it would be easier to keep an eye on them if they were close to me! ;-)) I also rotate my garlic around the garden each year -- as wherever the garlic is gets a serious manure/straw infusion, plus is not rototilled for two years, this also jump starts soil life in otherwise neglected areas of the garden.


Dorene Pasekoff, Coordinator
St. John's United Church of Christ Organic Community Garden

A mission of
St. John's United Church of Christ, 315 Gay Street, Phoenixville, PA 19460

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