A Sustainable Approach to Building Soil Using Local-Materials
|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 Gardening Magazine 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!|
Organic Matter, the "The First Amendment"
As 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 to one 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.
|1. 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.|
|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.|
|You don't have to spend lots of money on soil amendments, to yield beautiful results!|
|John mulches lettuce and broccoli using fresh grass-clippings.|
Preparing Garden Beds - One Low-Tech Way
Mulch We Love, and Why
Benefits of Deep Mulching
CLICK HERE for article (from your Organic Garden) about using leaves to build healthy soil.
|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).
|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 undesirable (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.
- Organize 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).|
|We're all just kids in the garden!|