If you could listen to your soil and it could talk, you would hear it asking for carbon. The very element that is accumulating in our atmosphere and threatening to disrupt the fabric of life on Earth is in great demand below our feet. Soil organic matter is to the microbial life of your soil as grass is to cows. It is the difference between feast and famine, and between hydration and drought.
Increasing organic matter in your soil brings fantastic benefits and requires of you really only two things – add the carbon, and allow plant roots to colonize every bit of your soil. Soil left bare of plants will lose that carbon back to the atmosphere. It’s the living plants that keep it there.
For now let’s focus on bringing in carbon to get things going. Later in the life of the Mothership garden, I expect my plants will provide all of the mulch and compost I need to continually renew my soil – and your garden may be at that point now. In mine, newly uncovered from it’s gravel and landscape-cloth shroud, there is little carbon available on site. So imports are needed.
We could think of there being a three step continuum related to adding carbon to your soil, with the goal being to move up the continuum until you get to level 3.
Level 1: stop exporting carbon. Keep your leaves, your grass clippings, your prunings, and all of your “yard waste.” It’s all carbon. Learn to use it as mulch, compost it, or bury it in your soil.
Level 2: import carbon. To get more carbon into your soil, bring in compost, mulch and manure and dig it in or just lay it on top.
Level 3: grow your own carbon. Your plants and trees can provide all the carbon you need to keep your soil happy. Chop and drop leafy plants that are nutrient accumulators; grow plants that make good mulch; compost or bury your prunings, and keep your ground covered.
Last summer, as soon as the gravel came off, I covered the soil with mulch from my favorite composting operation: Soilutions. Now, as I get ready for our first big spring planting, I need to do more to get my soil really jump-started. My soil remains relatively unchanged under that mulch, partially because we’ve had little precipitation for the last six months. Clearly, I need compost. Enter Soilutions again, and 2 yards of $35/yard Garden Compost, which looks similar to the mulch and is much courser than the $50/yard premium compost. I chose it because it will last longer and hold more water over a longer period of time, but a fine finished compost is a good choice too.
With my broadfork and my shovel, I loosened the soil and somewhat mixed in the four inches of compost I am aiming for on my newly-designed beds (more on mapping and designing your garden in a later post). Since this is one of my favorite forms of exercise, I don’t mind the effort of hauling it by the big bucketful to spots around the garden, or of using the fork to turn it in. I find the whole process delightful.
I hope this inspires you to start importing carbon this year, and I would love to hear your thoughts and questions on this topic!