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Homestead Reflections - Growing Healthy Soil in Early-Summer

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 June Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Kale planted in stubble with little soil disturbance 2 - Buckwheat flowers 3 - Wasp eggs on tomato hornworm

While I’m taking a break from homestead work to write this article, I’m also enjoying the mid-May beauty surrounding me.  The apple and pear trees are in full-bloom, the pasture and garden (April planted cover crops) are pulsing with that vibrant spring green, and the Baltimore Orioles are vrooming in to feast on orange halves we’ve put out for them to replenish their strength after their long return flight. We also like to feed them following their migration, so we can enjoy their spectacular beauty, close-up. 

Unseen beneath my feet there is another layer of beauty unfolding, that of the soil food web which is also coming to life after its winter slow down in activity.   If only we had microscopic vision, the wonders we would see!

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a NOFA/Mass sponsored workshop: Understanding the Water Cycle for Soil, Climate & Life, taught by Walter Jehne. It is amazing how intricate, how layered, and how intriguing the whole concept of soil health continues to be.   I start to think I have a handle on the topic and then, through workshops like this, my readings and from other direct experiences, I realize that this subject will bring me a lifetime of adventures in learning.

One, of the many ideas that Walter Jehne shared was the relationship between soil health and human health.  This is something that we organic gardeners know in our gut to be true, but Walter presented some important insights, which reinforced and explained how and why this is true. 

The human gut microbiome is very similar to the one in a healthy soil. In the soil, a mycorrhizal cell membrane serves as a protective shield, an “ intelligence interface” which selectively screens out any soil toxins while, at the same time allowing needed minerals to pass through into the cell.  The cell is “nutritionally intelligent”, in that it can also assess how much of which minerals are needed and limit access, so that only what is needed passes through. Pretty amazing!

“From the evidence it is the mycorrhizal membranes that dominate in the selective 'intelligent' active transport of essential mineral ions and exclusion of toxic ions from soil surfaces into the cytoplasm of the fungus and from there to the cytoplasm of the plant cells and into us via our food,” shared Walter Jehne.

In a healthy soil with a well-established network of mycrohizal fungal mycelium working symbiotically with green plants, nutrients are located and absorbed by the mycelium and transported into the plant. (For a review of soil microorganism basics, please refer to earlier March and April newsletter articles).

In a nonorganic system, chemicals are fed to plants in a water-soluble form.  The plant roots act like a straw, drawing these chemicals directly into the plant, for the most part without passing through the cell membrane, thus bypassing “quality control”.  

And as Jehne continues, “Given the critical importance that our food can provide us with the full range of essential mineral nutrients in the correct forms, concentrations, ratios and balances for our preventative health, these differences between the nutrient uptake processes of naturally grown mycorrhizal plants and chemically/industrially grown plants… may be highly significant.”

We are what we eat!

I’ve been writing about cover crops (CC) and no-till in detail for the past few months and the importance of these two techniques in maintaining and increasing the health of our garden soil.  But recently, I’ve been asked the important question of how to begin the process of creating a healthy soil biome, especially in a poor or depleted soil.

It’s true, as with everything, we need to start with a good foundation. The quantity, quality and balance of minerals must be available to the soil life as well as to the plant.  Remineralization by importing and adding essential minerals to the soil, will help jump-start your soil life.  Eventually, mycorrhizal hyphae, bacteria and plant roots will become established in healthy soil and then be able to mine the subsoil and bedrock for necessary minerals, making them bio-available to your plants, thus your external inputs will decrease over time.

Additionally, increasing soil organic matter (SOM) by applying compost and composted manure, mulching with ligneous materials and cover cropping will also provide food for soil life.

Along with adding minerals and increasing SOM, you can introduce soil microorganisms from a healthy soil.   Scoop up some of that rich forest duff from under healthy deciduous trees and deposit it under the mulch in your garden. If you have a really good friend with a beautiful garden they might let you take a few shovelful of their soil to use as an inoculant. You can also purchase various types of indigenous microorganisms to either inoculate your seeds or to apply directly to your soil or plants. When seeds and/or roots are inoculated at planting time, perfect conditions are established for a symbiotic relationship between beneficial fungus, bacteria and the plant to flourish.

I’d recommend getting a soil test from a lab which understands the importance of soil biology; NOFA recommends Logan Labs. I suggest making use of NOFA’s soil tech experts, here to help you interpret what lab results mean for you and your soil and suggest amendments. You can also have our team run soil carbon “proxy” tests on your site. The tests will measure the levels of biodiversity and other aspects of soil health that are attributable to building soil carbon. These will help you determine if your growing practices are successful.

Another way to address poor soil conditions is to use an extra boost of nutrients and biological reinforcements as a spray for your plants.  A healthy plant has increased levels of photosynthesis, which increases the amount of root exudates, which become available to feed the soil food web.  Even if you have great soil, a regular energy and immune boost is still very helpful.  Full colonization of a leaf surface by beneficial bacteria and fungi leaves little room for passing pathogens to get established. 

Foliar Tea:  For an extra boost of nutrients and biological reinforcements, spray as needed

  • Add to bucket:  mix of vibrant plants to obtain their nutrients, hormones, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins (red clover, comfrey, nettles, vetch, oat grass, garlic….). 
  • Cover with water
  • Sit in sun for a day or two
  • Strain and add liquid fish and liquid sea weed as per labels
  • Spray plant foliage including the underside of leaves – if possible spray “when birds are singing” in early morning or evening as that is when the stoma are open and can take in nutrients more quickly
  • Use a backpack, or hand held sprayer to apply

Now it’s time to talk early-summer cover crop details.  On May 14, the oat, field pea, forage radish combination planted in early April is 8 inches tall and very vibrant.  This past week I sprinkled a mix of less cold sensitive seeds (buckwheat, sorghum Sudan grass, sunflower and some older leftover vegetable seeds into several of those beds that will not be planted in vegetables this season.  My goal is to have complete coverage of the beds with a large variety of plants all photosynthesizing through out the entire growing season.  

The diversity of CC plants increases the amount and quality of soil biology. There are many varieties of mycorrhizal fungi, which are symbiotically connected to different plant species, therefore increasing the variety of CC’s increases total fungal activity. 

One approach, to plant in April-seeded CC beds, can be used throughout the growing season.  I cut back the CC, in small patches (5-6 inch +/-  diameter), just below the soil line thus killing the oats etc. only in those areas.  These patches are where I direct seed various veggie plants. I allow the CC to continue growing between these planting spots.  Later, when the CC starts to shade my vegetables, I will cut it back, but not kill it allowing it to regrow. 

Buckwheat flowersIn early June, I will use a similar approach (except the patches will be larger) when transplanting tomato, pepper, squash, and other tender veggies into the garden beds, which have been growing CC’s since April. The vegetable plants benefit from the soil life that has become associated with the living CC’s.  These CC’s really do not compete for nourishment as the soil biology is generating and transporting nutrients for all of the plants.

Also, starting in mid-May/June, I try to make sure that there is a patch of buckwheat growing and flowering at all times. Buckwheat flowers are a major attractant and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Native pollinators like bees, moths, beetles, flies, and wasps need small flowers from which they obtain nectar and pollen.  The beneficial insects (lady bugs, parasitic wasps, lace wings) also feed from small flowers while awaiting other food sources like aphids and caterpillars.  Keeping these beneficial close at hand in the garden will pay off when they dispatch unwanted insect pests.

Early summer maintenance of cover crops also entails monitoring and managing for your desired outcomes.  Beds in long term CC’s could be allowed to mature, grow deep roots, set seed, falWasp eggs on tomato hornworml over thus reseeding the bed while providing a deep mulch rich in lignin (a favorite fungal food) and sequestering carbon.  Or it could be cut just before seed maturity providing the same benefits without reseeding.

If an outcome is to have a prepared bed for planting a mid to late season vegetable like carrots, then 1-2 weeks before planting cut the CC at or below the soil line.  Use the cut CC as mulch or add it to your compost. Plant seeds through the stubble with as little soil disturbance as possible.

Well, that’s all for now.  Hope you are enjoying the early garden produce; asparagus, rhubarb, dandelions, nettles, wild cress, lettuce, endive and volunteers like garlic and other greens as much as we are.  The feast is just beginning - think June strawberries!

 

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