Creating a Sustainable Garden

By Billie Nicholson as Presented by Cindy Conner

SoilWhat is Soil?

Wearing her hand-made vest of many colors, Cindy Conner of Ashland, VA, talked about the things gardeners need to consider to make a garden that will sustain itself. Soil is much more than dirt. It consists of inorganic materials from rocks; organic material from dead and decayed plant life; biological systems – consisting of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa and other microscopic animals like round worms and earthworms; and air and water occupying the spaces between the soil components. Soil is a world of its own, whose components work together to support plants not just for anchorage, but also to provide nutrients enabling plants to grow, conduct photosynthesis and create food for us to eat and oxygen for us to breathe. In order for plants to continue to grow successfully, the soil they grow in needs to be continually nourished as well.

“Part of the cycle of life many try to ignore is microorganisms.  Without them, we would cease to exist.  Microbes are necessary for our food to be transformed into nutrients that our body can use.  If things are not working well in your gut, your body becomes unbalanced, causing havoc throughout. … In my studies of nutrition and of the soil, I’ve come to realize that the same thing going on in our gut with the microbes, is going on in the soil.  When the right balance of microorganisms is present, plants thrive.  Healthy soil produces healthy plants, which feed healthy people.  We are what we eat.  We are a people of the earth.  When we get our nutrients from REAL food, they come with the enzymes and co-nutrients, in proper proportion, necessary for assimilation in our bodies.” HomePlaceEarth

Soil Needs Food, too

To keep our gardens healthy and productive, we need to feed the soil. This does not mean, just add chemical fertilizers. We need to replenish the compost – organic materials in the soil. Making your own compost pile consisting of raw food scraps, non-edible plant parts, like older outside leaves on cabbage, tea and coffee grounds, egg shells and animal manure will replenish nourishing material. Another way to help this is to grow cover crops in part of your garden beds as a crop rotation. Cover crops are grown specifically to feed the soil. Some of these may also provide food for people as well, if you allow the plants to grow to maturity making fruit or seeds. Not all areas in the world produce gardens year-round. In these areas cover crops are grown during the winter. According to  GROW BIOINTENSIVE® researchers, 60% of your garden space should be in cover crops/compost all the time.

How does this work? The cover plants will be grown, cutdown and left or turned under the soil to decompose in place as the roots and green matter breakdown returning the nutrients to be used again by other plants. You can even use the old plants you have grown in other parts of your garden. When plants like lettuce go to flower, they are no longer edible. Just pull those plants and toss them into the composting bed. Why have a separate place requiring extra time and energy to move? Just make it in an existing garden bed. This was an “AHA” moment for me.

What can you plant and when?  Cindy has a handout with suggested plants for fall, spring  and summer cover plantings. These cover crops do not require the bed to be fallow for an entire year. Some crops like buckwheat work when you need something to fill a bed for about a month between main crops. Some plants, like cereal rye can be cut and then transplanted into about two weeks later. The plant material can be moved or left as mulch to keep down weeds and hold moisture.

     An important note: If you use herbicides on your lawn, do not add these clippings to your composting beds. The herbicides of today do not decompose during the composting process. These herbicides, designed to kill broad leaf plants producing weed free lawns, can damage your garden plants. Even manure from an animal fed on herbicide treated hay will still contain active herbicides.

Additional Articles in this month’s issue:

Billie Nicholson, Editor
May 2014

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