You may have already heard, but our Advanced Community Teaching Garden class logged over 350 pounds of harvest from the garden in August alone! As we marvel over our bountiful and beautiful harvest from this past month, we reflect on the growing season and what made it all possible. One thing we know for sure, that we’ve been exploring the past few weeks, is SOIL. Is it dead? Is it alive? Can I ever get it out from under my fingernails? This week’s blog will discuss our soils education and give some tips for understanding yours!
Lesson number one: soil is alive! And dead, and decomposing. There are many layers of soil called horizons, and they all have different functions and origins. Soil begins where hard earth, or parent, material ends and continues up to the earth’s surface where we recognize it and call it dirt. The top layers are home to organic matter which is created when organic things (like food scraps, leaves, dead insects etc.) decompose into the soil. Organic matter is what we should thank every time we gasp at a beautiful carrot or watch our kale plants produce for months and months (and months and months).
However, because soil is alive it can also be unhealthy and lack organic matter or other indicators of healthy soil. Soil health is similar to human health in that it is reflective of many factors and can mean many things. Typically, healthy soil is very alive. There may be an abundance of earthworms, it could be very dark in color, hold moisture well, resist erosion etc. Soil is healthy when nature is allowed to complete its natural processes and return nutrients back to it. For example, in a forest, soils give heaps of energy and nutrients to trees and other forest plants. At the end of the tree’s lives, they drop their leaves on the ground and return the favor. Unhealthy soil, or un-fertile soil, experiences more extraction than return.
In addition to soil health, there are some inherent features of soil that humans nor trees nor kale can control. There are many soil types that are reflective of the history of a given piece of land. Certain soils (alluvial) tell us that there used to be a river in that spot, for example. Furthermore, soils are most basically classified as clay, sand, silt, and anywhere in between. Based on the balance of clay, sand, and silt, the soil will act differently. You can look up what kind of soil you’re standing on right now here!
Every fall for the past couple years or so, we’ve tested the soil in both of our teaching gardens. As gardeners, we play a pretty significant role in soil health. Some things we’ve done so far to enhance soil health include: adding compost and soil amendments early in the season, excluding synthetic inputs, cover cropping spent plots, and composting after large harvests. All of these are in effort to return nutrients and organic matter to the soil.
The soil tests we did were through UVM’s Agricultural and Environmental Testing Laboratory and the Cornell Soil Health Testing Laboratory. Both will clue us into the soil’s pH, organic matter, and various micronutrient levels, in addition to some more technical information about the sample. The Cornell Lab will also include information about soil respiration (what’s breathing in there?) and we aggregate stability (soil structure). These soil tests will inform next year’s soil health actions in the gardens, such as what kinds of organic soil amendments to add and what kinds of plants we can expect to do well. If you’re curious about improving your garden’s soil fertility in the mean time, UVM Extension has put together some excellent information on Managing Vegetable Garden Soil Fertility in Vermont.
Just like we cherish our relationships with each other and with our incredible edible harvests, we cherish our relationship with the soil. Such a relationship requires care and reciprocity, and begins with knowing what’s going on down there.
If you’re interested in getting your garden soil tested, Cedar Circle Farm can guide you through the process with this easy how-to!
Stay tuned for the results of our soil tests and corresponding garden planning for 2019!
Nell has been an intern with the Vermont Community Garden Network for the last two seasons, first as Garden Education Intern and this year as Community Teaching Garden Intern. She is also an Undergraduate Research Fellow with UVM’s Agroecology and Livelihoods Collaborative (ALC) and has brought a wealth of knowledge to the Community Teaching Gardens this year! Thank you, Nell!