The Dirt on Soil

January 16, 2011

I walked into Master Gardening Friday and found I was not the only one who was unhappy with their seat last week. The whole room had a slightly switched-up kind of feel, and I quickly laid claim to a seat in the area I envied last week.

Ahh!! What a difference a new perspective makes! And how much more intelligent did I feel! While last week was an intense, fast-paced and blinding college-level botany course, this week had a more familiar feel. I realized I know a lot that I didn’t know I knew.

Ellen was our instructor; seemingly slightly nervous about speaking to the crowded room. She had a soft voice and gentle personality, dove-colored hair pulled back in a pony tail. She looked like the type of woman who’d go right under your radar at, say, the grocery store. Then she told us about her job. And I was dripping with envy. Among other fabulous experiences, Ellen has spent 8 years in the Virgin Islands studying soil – she is a soil scientist – who really knew there was such a thing?

What a cool job! And who knew THIS – Illinois has the most fertile soil in the world, except for parts of Siberia and because of that weather, they can’t hardly grow a damn thing. So we here are truly the breadbasket of the world. That alone I thought was worth my Friday.

This is amazing too. If I had ever thought about it before, I would have formulated the opinion that all soil world-wide is about the same age. Wrong! Tropical soils are 100,000 years old or more while Illinois soil is only 10,000-20,000 year olds, which is one of the reasons it’s so very fertile. It was formed by recent (relative to eons) glaciers that covered first almost the entire state and then the upper northeast, scraping the earth and grinding up rocks and stones and all manner of minerals. Jungles are actually very poor soils, like our deciduous forests here, because organic matter doesn’t have a chance to get worked into the soil. Who knew?!

I learned about clay and silt and sand, about nitrogen, phosphorus and potash. I learned about oxygen and water levels, how to analyze a soil to determine whether it is clay loam or sandy loam. I learned that when we dug trench behind the berm and filled it with river rock to help move the standing water into the sewer drain, we actually built a “French drain.” And no one told us how to do that – we figured that one out all by ourselves!

Ellen explained inorganic fertilizers and was careful to let us know that plants don’t and can’t differentiate between man-made chemicals and manure compost. But – and here is where I really like her – you could certainly tell her heart wasn’t in the chemical fertilizers. Organic amendment – compost, manure, shredded leaves, and all that wonderful stuff – not only gives you a better balance of nutrients, it also improves the soil tilth (texture). It also lit a fire in her eyes and seemed to warm the cockles of her little heart. We bonded at that moment, although she is unaware.

I learned that my present compost bin is really not that effective, which explains why nothing much is happening out there, even though it’s been undisturbed for months now. I am now inspired to pitch those rather useless rain barrels – she talked about dry wells that sit under ground and slowly dissipate all the water from your gutters into the ground – and put the compost piles there. I just need 9′ x 3′ and we can make this happen so much more effectively.

I learned that even a much thicker sweater is still not warm enough in this frigid classroom.

She showed photos of mice in a compost pile and I thought with fondness of Clarence and Francine. The woman across the table shuddered in disgust and I told her, “I’ve got them in my garden and I love them. They’re so cute!” From the look she gave me, she may switch seats again next week.

I learned that my “casual composting” of throwing kitchen waste into containers and that hole behind the hostas is actually a prescribed technique called “pit composting.” And the way I built the veggie garden last year – piling up kitchen waste, covering it with pond leaves and then sealing it with new soil – is called “lasagna composting.”

Who knew that I knew all that?



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