Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Soil is the skin of the earth

This Sunday my nephew and I are going to be digging in the dirt-- taking the first six inches of soil from my old garden and moving it to my new garden five miles away.

I tried to have a garden in my new place last year, but the end result wasn't great. The soil was sandy and didn't make a fragrant ball in my hand when I squeezed it together-- just ran out between my fingers. I'd forgotten what unenriched backyard soil is like.

For nearly thirty years I gardened in the same spot, the deep back yard of an inner city house. My tools were a garden spade, a shovel, garden shears, a wheelbarrow, a trowel and a claw. I turned the soil myself each spring and in the first years, the thatch grew so thick I'd have to beat the clods against the earth to shake loose the dirt. I bought bags of composted manure for the first years and I started a compost pile. Just about everything went into it: leaves, yard waste, food scraps, used kitty litter (minus the poop). A few times I mixed in a 30 x bag of bone meal to help the pile heat up. My compost pile was very informal, not even fenced in. Once or twice a year I'd turn it by taking from the top layers with my spading fork and moving them to another pile. When I got down to soil, , my shovel would slide into dark, rich, grumbly earth and I'd shovel it (and many earthworms) into the wheelbarrow, cart it over to my garden and mix it in to the soil's top layers. I'd get ten or twelve full wheelbarrows a year. Now multiply that by thirty years over a 40' by 60' plot, add years of grass clipping and other mulch, and you can see why I want my soil! That soil is my true wealth, accumulated through investment and hard work.

I don't exactly know how I came to care so much about earth, seeing as I grew up in the suburbs and the city, but I feel incredibly fortunate to have more than a passing understanding of how plants are born, live, provide food, and enrich the soil at the end of their season.

Last week the Associated Press said that according to a new World Resources Institute report, food production has been cut by about a sixth because of declining soil productivity. One-fifth of the world's cropland has deteriorated to some degree.

Fertilizer is a quick fix to improve crop yields, but the real solution is soil health: crop rotation, addition of organic material, less tilling, cover crops, erosion prevention.

The Nation has a good article on the roots of our food crisis and what can be done about it.
The current global food system, which was designed by US-based agribusiness conglomerates like Cargill, Monsanto and ADM and forced into place by the US government and its allies at the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, has planted the seeds of disaster by pressuring farmers here and abroad to produce cash crops for export and alternative fuels rather than grow healthy food for local consumption and regional stability
Please, grow something-- anything-- this season.

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