Wednesday, May 07, 2014

because this is what it is really about

At just about this very moment in doing this today, I was thinking about a stupid little magazine article I read more than 20 years ago now.  We'd moved to the farm so we were at least pregnant but it was early on, before we'd really internalized the fact that it just all doesn't get done.  The article was basically talking about that, but also how to get stuff done I guess.  What I remember was that she talked about a friend of hers who made for her family a cake, from scratch, every week.  But when she really thought about it, her friend made the same cake every week, and on the same day of the week too.  And what she learned from this was what we do habitually becomes easy.

We didn't plow last year as we had no horse.  It is amazing what you forget in one year.  And a new horse!  A new horse who has his own issues and who I don't know and who doesn't know me and who isn't familiar with our work.  Whew.  He wanted to walk fast.  He did not want to wait for us to catch our breath.

I look at this photo and I think, a real teamster would see 1001 things wrong with it.  I myself see 10.  But here's the thing.  We are doing it.  It is getting done.  And that is what is important.  Improvement, some measure of fluency, comes,  hopefully.  It is deadly serious and it is incredibly fun.  It isn't idle.  Or illusion.

I mean, really, I don't care what it is, where you are, anything.  But I do care about those things -- not idle, not illusion, serious and fun.  Try counts.  Perfection doesn't.  Whining is a minus (life is tough all over).  And DOing.  Because if you never do it at all, it cannot become habitual and thus easy and you end up just doing the easy stuff which is cr*p for food, the money economy, vacating, whining, etc.

And so here is also a guest post about soil by the scarce but ever erudite Eleutheros:
The question is often posed, what is your main 'crop'? What's the most important thing to grow in the home garden. The answer is simple and clear . . . it's dirt.
If the organic intensive gardener makes only this one transition, the majority of the task is done.... view yourself as farming dirt, not plants. If you farm the dirt, the plants will take care of themselves.

There was a time in the now distant past (1960's let's say) when "organic" meant grown from decaying organic material. By this view you had to build an organic soil, it had nothing to do with what you did or did not put on the soil or plants that season.

Then the idea of "certified organic" arose, There is no feasible way to quantify real organic soil. So instead the organizations poked around the sheds to see if there were any insecticide or chemical fertilizer bags and there, you are now "Certified Organic" although there might not be hardly a trace of humus in your soil

Then like the Israelites begging for a king when Elisha told them the last thing in the world they wanted was a king .... people pushed for a USDA definition of "organic" thinking it would include them but exclude all their competition only to find the word was sold to the highest bidder (and it wasn't them) until now the term is meaningless.

But back to its original meaning, the type of gardening being examined here depends on lavishing time and resources on making organic soil, and once that is underway, the rest falls into place.
This is an oversimplification, and for that I apologize ahead of time to any chemist/biologist type out there, but it isn't entirely objective science, there is some mystery to it as well:

There is a wheel in motion, a Rotas Fortunae of Nature, called the Nitrogen Cycle. There are also interconnected wheels of the phosphorus cycle, potassium cycle, and cycles of all manner of trace elements. For the sake of illustration let me confine myself to the Nitrogen Cycle.

Atmospheric nitrogen is taken in by microorganisms and fixed to hydrogen in the form of NH3 (ammonia), this also occurs when protein bearing organic material decays, NH3 is released.

The ammonia would be quickly "lost" to the atmosphere were it not for another group of bacteria that "eat" it and excrete -NO2 compounds (nitrites). And then another group of bacteria "eat" the nitrites and excrete -NO3 compounds (nitrates).

When the nitrates accumulate in the soil, the nitrate-excreting bacteria, being far better versed on these matters than we are, sense the level of concentration long before it reaches a level toxic to them and they go into a sort of stasis, dormancy.

Since they are not eating the nitrites, the nitrite excreting bacteria eventually also sense the levels building toward toxicity and go into dormancy. And likewise the nitrogen fixing bacteria and protein injesting microorganisms sense the levels of ammonia building and go into dormancy.

Plants can only use nitrogen in the form of nitrates. The growing pants take in the nitrates thus lowering the level of their concentration and awakening the nitrate excreting bacteria back into action. And this in turn lowers the level of nitrites and awakens the nitrite excreting bacteria which lowers the level of ammonia.... and etc.

It operates like a well oiled machine in a Steam Punk story. The soil is alive and there is always a very good level of nitrates in the soil for the plants to use. See why a soil test is useless on alive organic soils? It tells you nothing of any importance.
From the foundation of the world until the late 1800's all life on earth came about from the process of natural nitrogen fixation. This limited the number of animals, but especially humans, that could be in the world since they are made out of nitrogen and nitrogen was a limited commodity. [Incidentally this also limited warfare since explosives are made out of nitrates as well]. But in the 1890's a German (Haber) came up with a method of using natural gas to artificially fix nitrogen. A few years later another German (Bosch) came up with a way to industrialize the process. And thus since then the artificially fixed nitrogen from the Haber-Bosch process has allowed there to be far more human beings that the world would have naturally been able to support.

These artificially contrived nitrates are applied to the soil and the plant uses them directly, and the process is very inefficient with most of the nitrate salts being washed out of the soil. This level of nitrate concentration is toxic to our nitrogen-excreting bacteria and it kills them. Since they are gone, the levels of nitrites build up until the nitrite excreting bacteria cannot come out of dormancy and they die. Then the ammonia fixing bacteria are the next to go, The soil becomes dead.

Organic means plants grown from living soil as compared to soil soaked in inorganic nitrates. It has little to do with what you do and don't "add" to the soil or with what you fertilize it.
 Now .... what's the practical upshot of this? It's that in whatever situation or capacity you find yourself, build some soil. If it's a half acre corn field or an old recycled coffee can of dirt, it makes little difference really. The organic dirt farmer is like those Cylons of BG fame, the one big eye forever scanning left and right and seeing soil in every unlikely bit of organic material .... a pile of leaves, some weeds growing next to the mailbox, the paring from the mashed potatoes, that those old canned goods that are now 18 years old, that glob of swamp muck, that decaying stump in the woods,

How long does this take? Here it is early May, if you had some green grass clippings and weeds (lots of green weeds) and some carbon rich material like a few mouldering leaves from last year, you could have new soil, capable of growing something on it ,,,, by the first week of June. Oh yes, not joking, about three weeks with enzymatically active material and this warm weather (and a little savvy and perseverance) .

To build those dark rich beds of soil 20" deep in humus takes years, But the very fine thing about soil building is that you get some results immediately ... a matter of weeks ... while contributing to the long term goal,

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