Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Influx Off

Gardening is good. Almost always, especially if it begins in a backyard and ends on a family table. 

But then, I am curmudgeonly (ever since I was a kid--age ain't got much to do with it), and can find fault with most anything. And so it is that I cringe when I surf the gardening and urban homesteading sites that proliferate like dandelions, because so many of them rely on quick fixes that undercut the soul of a gardener and the soil of the earth. The blogs I'm drawn to resist chemical assaults and may even proclaim organicity, but it is possible to disobey and disgust Mother Nature without raping her. 

High on the list of such actions is the Raised Bed Full of Trucked in "Soil" Syndrome. I've gardened in volcanic cinder rendered near-lifeless by city-scaping, in Virginia clay stripped of topsoil and driven over for good measure, and in glacial sand that can't hold nutrients or water any more than Monsanto can get a grip on the importance of diversity in evolution. As my last post admits, I am not pure, and there have been occasional bags of compost and other inputs into my gardens (that Honolulu cinder got on the road to soil when I'd go steal bags of clippings from rich people who had yards and then compost them, but I like to think that's more of a Robin Hood action than buying bagged steer-shit). 

But here in Olympia, which many would consider an epicenter of groovy organicism, there is this fascination with raised beds full of fake soil. Slap up a frame (I see photos sometimes of chemical treated wood used for this, ick), and fill it with alleged compost. Even if the material is not full of nitrogen-leaching wood products or feedlot chemicalized cowshit, it ain't soil. It may be the best compost ever, fluffy and black, rich as a Romney, but it has nothing to do with the soil in your yard.

In bags or trucks, it is a big fake input, not borne of the stuff in your yard. And often as not, people put some kind of barrier between their yard and the new stuff, attempting segregation as if the microbia of their own yard are somehow dangerous and inferior. Although mixing and incorporation into soil development is inevitable in the long run, your earthworms and fungi must think the new stuff tastes weird. 

The box o' compost may produce a great crop or two, but it is also a destabilizing force. It may be so rich in nitrogen that it feeds foliage at the expense of strength and structure. It may turn your raised bed into a symphylans corral. It may come laden with weed-seed, or it may just play host to the thistle and dandelion that ride the wind to your domain. 

Much slower to augment slowly from your own leaf-fallen, grass-clipped, storm-dropped organics. Much slower to plant and plow under legumes or cultivate shrooms. Much slower to exercise the patience Solomon (no link, you either know whereof I speak or you don't) advises and keep the additives to a minimum lest pests be fruitful and multiply. Much slower to grow soil before you grow your ideal grocery list.

But in the end, this slow, influx-starved process proves more resilient, more healthy, more durable. Soil is not the stuff you add, it is the multi-layered organism that grows over the land. It is earth's skin; like your skin, it is healthiest when you do what is good for the body, not when you add chemicals (organically derived or not). The best topsoil is on intimate terms with the subsoil, formed from its minerals and the poop of a thousand worms, a million hyphae, a trillion bacteria, all flowing up and down and all around. Taking off in the worm-grit of a robin's craw and returning in the chickadee's droppings, but not arriving by the ton in a truck.

Soil well grown, plus an acceptance of what works in your yard and what does not, is the solution to the long-term gardener. In Honolulu, a decade of growing cane and ti and banana produced the leaf-mulch that changed cinder with a few skinny cockroaches into black loam full of worms. In Virginia, a couple years of woodpile followed by grass and leaf compost (and yes, hours of back-breaking cultivation) turned compacted clay into reasonable topsoil. In Olympia, cook-out ashes (from alder cut in my yard) and various other home-grown biomass--and of course, the miracle of wild strawberries--seems to be working. Based on past performance, the fact that this yard's soil is much-improved must mean I am about to move, to take on some new deadscape...oh well. The joy is in growing.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Under the Strawberry Hide

Free the Bulbs!

It's Spring Break, time for play, maybe a trip south for the cold, the old, the collegiate lemmings. 

Or, hours of bending, kneeling, and crawling along, ripping up a web of strawberry vines run amok. And though my spine's got the grindey-disk blues, my mind's deep-down satisfied. Weeding can do that.

The long bed running roadside was the first one I dug. The top edge cuts into the gravel, and mostly it didn't have much of what you'd call top-soil. Sandy clay. So I put herbs in as is but most everything else was planted with anything from a fist-full to a few gallons of whatever manure or bark-based compost was cheap at Home Depot at the time, and one year I mulched it with compost that was mostly nitrogen-sucking bark fiber.

Then one time down by some cranberry bogs, I saw this strawberry that grew on the road.  From off the shoulder, runners long-jumping onto asphalt, implanting roots, en-planting and growing into another team sending out runners onto that sunny country road. Soon enough, runners cross each other and red-strung web plays out over the colony. Plants branch like multi-headed giant millipedes (which infestation, incidentally, can be avoided by planting any Artemisia), and beneath that their roots tangle a tough horse-hair blanket.

Then there's the road. Except, the interstices are investigated by all manner of arthropods and microbia, including regular-headed millipedes. Pretty soon, the paltry bacterial stratum that had slowly been working on the tar hosts a mat of vegetation reaping photons enough to feed a host of other plants, fungi, and critters. Which poop, causing hyphae to send out web-forming runners to clean up. For every creature eating another, there is something else feeding on it's waste. The result of all this cleaning up is, ironically to some, dirt. Soil, a living layer, incorporating whatever road gravel it loosens from the matrix, as well as sands blown or washed in, leaves and twigs, rabbit pellets and deer hair, a crow feather. Anything that gets snagged in that red-runner web goes through this slow-motion grinder til it is soil.

Or until some guy happens by and cuts out a little mat and takes it home to plant in a roadside bed. Not really thinking of soil formation, but of strawberries. I teased apart the mat and spaced the plants in the bed. 

But it doesn't take long to learn that these plants just want to vine and entwine, not set still and make berries. That was fine, I figured, let them roam. All through the rest of the bed, up over the edge and into the roadside gravel, into the grass. The runners are so bright that it's easy to nip them off before they run into another bed where I don't want them.

Three or four years later, and the strawberry mat has run its course. They were good groundcover--tough and undemanding, abundant flowers, red leaves hanging through the Winter--but now they smother the camas and tulips and assorted plants venturing out for the Spring.  

So I bent down to start ripping. Thumb and forefinger pinch a rhizome, and pull it's rootfro from the rain-soft earth. Easy, but then you do it a thousand more times. Maybe more. A couple of wheelbarrel loads. Then collapse, just laying there with the mist dropping on you, surveying the bed.

Where there is soil. It always looks better in the Spring wet, but I see dozens of worms wiggling, waving, and peristalsis-ing on a crumbly black field. It was easy to feel how friable the soil was while pulling the weeds; roots 4 inches deep came up willingly. Whatever reluctance I'd had about removing perfectly functional ground cover imploded when I saw what lay beneath. Sweet happy soil, ready to receive something new.

The strawberry field may not have been forever, but it had a good run. Ripping it off quick like taking off a band-aid was the way to go. I could have piddled around, clearing one small section, or just continuing to clear little pockets for other specimens, but it would be bothersome, and it would have been hard to perceived the overall transformation and potential. I'd have missed things I planted long ago and forgot, which may never have poked up through the grizzled strawberry hide, and instead been drowned and ground down. Contributing to the soil, yes, but maybe the soil can do fine without it's mono-mat, and in its place the charms of new flowers and foods will have their day in the sun.