Thursday, February 23, 2006

High Rain Fall Can Equal Low Soil Fertility

In natural settings the nutritional needs of plants are supplied through processes of weathering and decomposition. Rocks break down into smaller and smaller particles by the actions of sun, water, and roots. This slow process releases minerals, which are dissolved by rain and other moisture. A portion of these dissolved minerals are ultimately absorbed by the roots of plants and contribute to the fertility of the soil.

The plants take up the dissolved minerals, grow, and are fed on by other organisms. They all in their time eventually die and decay. Through the slow process of decomposition nutrients, minerals, and nitrogen are released once again to the soil and the roots of plants. In natural systems complex inter-relationships conserve and build soil fertility and support the cycling of nutrients. Wild soils support networks of living roots - waiting and ready to absorb minerals as they are dissolved. These nutrients are then cycled through plants and animals until they decay and are again released to the soil. It is a beautiful system that works efficiently and continually in many ecosystems and environments.

This system often breaks down with human interference. In our yards, gardens, and farms we tend to haul off the very substances that would feed our soil. Lawn and garden clippings, prunings, kitchen waste, and animal excrement all contain the nutrients necessary to healthy fertile soil, and we burn it, haul it off, or throw it in the berry bushes. If this wasn't bad enough, we insist on killing the "weeds" that would provide the network of living roots to absorb minerals as they are dissolved. Without this network of living roots, minerals are washed from our soils during heavy rains.

If our soils are not protected, high rainfall can equal low soil fertility. The rain simply leaches the soil of all dissolvable minerals and nitrogen. Plants are left looking washed out and pale. They grow slowly, fail to thrive, produce few flowers or fruit. Gardeners often respond by buying and spreading commercial chemical fertilizers. While these can temporarily green up the landscape they do little to truly improve the health and fertility of the soil. Quite the contrary in fact. These chemical "nutrients" leach readily from our yards and gardens. They enter the water table and travel through the soil to our rivers and creeks. There they contribute to unhealthy algae blooms that threaten the salmon and the very foundations of our natural systems. (And we pay good money to contribute to this harm.)

Chemical fertilizers are like drugs. They interfere with the natural processes of decomposition and soil recycling. They kill the micro and macro- organisms necessary for these processes. The gardener becomes dependent on these fertilizers to produce the bloom, the fruit and the leaf that he or she admires. The soil is no longer able to cycle nutrients in a natural fashion. The system breaks down. But there is another way. (And it is really less expensive, and it is even less work.)

 "Soil is not dirt. It is a living  organism, or rather a collection of organisms, and it must be fed.  Soil both craves life and wants to produce life, even a hundredfold."  Fred Bahson, Soil and Sacrament, page3.

Mulch is a great soil, work, and nutrient saving alternative. Apply a thick enough mulch and weeds are unlikely to grow. Those occasional weeds that do manage to root in your mulch will be easy to pull. Mulch can be laid down around vegetables, flowers, and shrubs. It can cover fallow vegetable beds in winter. All most any organic plant material makes great mulch. Even your most hated weeds, if pulled before they set seed, can be left to dry in the sun, and then recycled as part of your weed protection. Mulch needs to be replenished from time to time. As it decomposes it is improving the fertility of your soil.

Winter cover crops and year around ground covers provide your yard and garden with that living network of roots to capture and recycle dissolved minerals. Clovers are especially beneficial. They fix nitrogen from the atmosphere and substantially increase the soil's fertility. Even those weeds you hate are better than bare soil. Not only does bare soil loose nutrients it is likely to erode, dissolve, and compact without the protection of either living plants or mulch.

Hopefully soon, our weather will warm and dry. We will have the opportunity to take a good look at our yards and landscapes. If when you look around you find your plants are looking washed out, growing slowly, plan on investing in an organic solution. Nitrogen is almost certain to be lacking when plants are pale and growing slow. Composted manures, which can be purchased all ready screened and ready to spread, are a simple solution. Soil amendments that contain composted chicken manure or bat guano are also good sources of nitrogen. All products that are high in nitrogen should be used sparingly. Any dissolved nitrogen that is not taken up by the roots of plants ends up in our creeks and rivers. And that is definitely not a good thing. Too much nitrogen, even from natural sources, can burn your plants and harm the microorganisms in the soil. It is a good idea to use less than you think you need, and apply every week or so until your plants perk up. And then don't forget to mulch and plant clover.

For more information on caring for your lawn, garden, and landscape in a healthful and environmentally friendly way see: "Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally," By Robert Kourik, published by Metamorphic Press, ISBN 0-9615848-0-7 Distributed by Rodale Press (Your library or bookstore can easily order this for you. I found a copy on the shelf at my local library.)

Clover seeds and sometimes plants are available through many garden catalogs, some nurseries and at most feed stores. Your local feed store is likely to have someone on hand who can help you select the best clover for your situation, soil type, and amount of sun or shade. Clover seed can also be ordered on line from:  (Folks who are allergic to bees, will want to skip the clover and stick with mulch as clover does attract bees.)


Copyright, 2006, Harvest McCampbell. Published by the Hoopa Valley People Newspaper, February 21, 2006.  Posted here with permission

Minor edits and the addition of a quote, 11.18.2016.  Copyright, Harvest McCampbell.  Please feel free to share using the buttons below.  All other rights reserved.


terri said...

great article! I planted clover as a cover crop and it worked very well. I also decided to fill in the back yard in between the beds and under the apple trees. The bees love it, and it smells terrific.

Harvest said...

Hi Terri,

I have white clover - I think Dutch, and I like it alot. I all so have a small batch of red clover started and am trying to get some cardnial clover going. I wonder if it helps attract the bees to your trees?