A Sustainable Approach to Building Soil Using Local-Materials
Turning over a new leaf
|photo: Muhammad Sajjad|
Leaves, grass clippings and other yard "waste" make excellent fertilizer
for garden soil. We have been demonstrating this at the Sharing Gardens
with vegetable yields in the tons
(2012 Harvest Totals
My husband Chris also demonstrated a great increase in fertility using yard "waste"
on his 5-acre farm in the high-desert country NE of Mt. Shasta,
California (back in the 1980's - '90's). Within a short amount of time,
using only leaves and grass clippings, alfalfa-powder that he collected from the floor
of a pellet mill nearby, and a modest amount of goat and chicken manure
from his own livestock, Chris turned volcanic soil, the
consistency of beach-sand, into a garden that inspired Organic
to write an article about him called
"Defying the Odds on a High-Desert Oasis"
(March 1991). Chris' gardens were so bounteous and beautiful that his farm was nicknamed "Findhorn West!"
|Feed your worms and other "micro-livestock" directly in the soil!|
have already written several posts that go into great detail about the
simple methods we use at the Sharing Gardens, using local materials, to
increase fertility (links below). In essence, our method is to feed the
soil with leaves, lawn-clippings, spoiled hay and vegetable scraps,
weeds and the plants we pull at the end of the season to feed the
"micro-livestock" (worms, bacteria and other "composters"). As these
garden-partners eat their way through the yard and garden "waste" we
provide for them, they fertilize the soil with their manure and create
minute tunnels that keep the ground from compacting.
, the "The First Amendment"
our dear friend, James Cassidy (professor of Soil Science at Oregon
State University) likes to say about soil health, no matter what
challenges you are facing, the answer is always "add organic matter!"
Here is a step-by-step guide
of the methods we use at the Sharing Gardens to increase the fertility and tilth of the soil using a lot of grass clippings combined with dry leaves.
Two to three weeks before planting in a bed, spread a layer of leaves and grass clippings and till them in.
Thinly distribute dry leaves over the surface of your grass. You want
there to be more grass clippings than leaves in your final mix. It'll be
much easier to do with dry leaves saved from the previous Fall. |
and fruit trees have thinnest leaves that break down quickest. Avoid
walnut leaves as they will make your soil toxic to your seedlings. Oak
and other thicker leaves work fine -- just mix in more grass clippings
than with thinner leaves.
|2. Run the mower over the leaves/lawn, using a catcher-bag to collect them. Set mower at a higher setting. Sometimes you may have to lift and lower mower to avoid stalling.|
|3. Distribute them about 1" - 2" thick in garden beds. You can till first, or lay the grass/leaves out and then till them in.|
|4. Till grass/leaf combo into the soil passing over the bed two to four times to work them in well.|
5. Worms and soil organisms will decompose them enough in 2-3 weeks for you to begin transplanting.
6. Stand back and watch your vegetables grow!
|You don't have to spend lots of money on soil amendments, to yield beautiful results!|
Note: if you use plain
, fresh grass clippings (no leaves), they can be quite hot, if laid on thick. If used as a mulch around plants, be sure they don't actually touch the stems or leaves of the plants.
|John mulches lettuce and broccoli using fresh grass-clippings.|
Other related posts from the Sharing Gardens:
Preparing Garden Beds - One Low-Tech Way
More on Mulch
Mulch We Love, and Why
Benefits of Deep Mulching
for article (from your Organic Garden
) about using leaves to build healthy soil.
But could it really be so simple?
|Raking grass - a local resource.|
In the beginning (if
you are starting with a new garden site), or even as you transition
from using commercially available soil amendments, you may need to use a
pre-mixed, organic fertilizer, or concentrated materials applied
judiciously, in addition to leaves, grass clippings etc. For example, in
the first years of the Alpine, and Monroe Sharing Gardens we used
rabbit and llama manure (dried and sifted as part of our nursery/potting
mix, or worked into the hole with transplants.) We used an all-purpose,
organic fertilizer in this same way, along with some kelp powder (for
minerals and micro-nutrients). At times we have also used fish, or
seaweed liquid concentrates as a "foliar feeder" (diluted with water
and sprayed on plants when they showed signs of mineral depletion or
stress.) But our primary methods of maximizing the fertility of our soil
have been through mulching deeply
using locally available "waste
products": Leaves, grass clippings and spoiled hay (wet or moldy hay
that can no longer be used as feed or bedding for livestock).
Taking local food production to a new level
|Volunteers sharing in the harvest. Now that's local!|
One hot topic these days is "eating local". A "locavore
is someone who endeavors to eat foods grown or produced within a
certain radius (for example, 100 miles). There are many reasons a person
might choose to eat more "locally" but one common reason is to live
lighter on the planet by reducing the amount of fuel needed to transport
food. While this is an important piece of the puzzle, it's also
important to go a step further to look also at where the fertilizers and
other soil amendments come from. Even if
the food you eat travels less than 100 miles, if the soil was fertilized
with products that came from half-way around the world, this radically
increases the "carbon footprint.
Many of these soil amendments also involve aggressive mining, or
extraction methods that are environmentally damaging and threaten the
delicate balance of life. Many of the sources for these materials are in increasingly shorter supply, making
the long-term use of them unsustainable. Also, for people who choose to
eat a vegan, or vegetarian diet, their use in growing vegetables is
(ex: feather-meal, bonemeal and other slaughter-house by-products).
Don't treat your soil like "dirt".
As an overall philosophy, we feel it is better to work with
nature and cooperate with the processes of soil-building and fertility
that have evolved over eons, than to assume the role of a soil
magician, concocting potions and powders, mixes and methods that can be
complicated, costly and often disruptive
to the health of your soil. The good news is that most, if not all of
these products can
be supplemented, and eventually replaced by resources that are
local, renewable and sustainable: leaves, lawn clippings, kelp
concentrates (powder and liquid) and modest amounts of animal manure.
Finding local sources
If you don't live in an area that will deliver leaves, or
you don't have a site big enough to warrant a full dump-truck load
deposited, here are some other ideas:
- Offer to rake your neighbors leaves in exchange for using them in your garden.
- Approach your neighbors about bringing you their bags of leaves.
- Organize a "leaf co-op" where a group of gardening friends rake and share the leaves they gather.
your local scout troop, or 4-H, or youth group to spend a few Saturdays
in a row raking leaves in the neighborhood. You can offer this service
'by donation' and collect funds for the youth group's other activities.
- Put an add on 'Craig's List' requesting leaves.
- Set up a site at the local dump or transfer station.
|Collection station Chris set up at the local dump in Mt Shasta, CA (1980's).|
This last solution is one that my husband Chris, implemented quite
successfully at his previous farm. At that time, yard "waste" was a real issue as it took up
valuable space at the land-fill and meant that they would have to close
and find new places to dump the community's refuse. Also, in many rural
areas, instead of paying dump-fees, many people gather their leaves and
burn them which not only deprives the soil of these valuable nutrients
but adds to air pollution as well. Chris made an arrangement with the
dump's manager whereby he set up a chain-link enclosure as a
collection-site for yard waste and had a separate area for nursery pots
and flats. Whenever the enclosure was full, Chris would get a call from
the manager, and go pick up the load.
|We're all just kids in the garden!|
Whenever we write one of these "how-to" posts we try to add a couple of
caveats: One is that, there are just about as many different ways to
grow a garden as there are gardeners and this is just our
way. Two: Gardening is a very dynamic process; each garden site is different, and each year
garden site is different due to the weather and other shifting
conditions. So, while these methods reflect what we're doing these days,
check back in another year and see if we've evolved it further!
Herbicide Contamination in Manure, Compost and Grass Clippings?