Friday, October 8, 2010

Get tested

What do an earthworm, an organic farmer, and a food-obsessed, cross-country bicycling, 30-something city girl have in common? We know good dirt when we see it.

But seriously, up until recently, I just thought of dirt as that stuff you were yelled at for tracking into the house when you were a kid. It turns out that not all dirt is created equal, and the good stuff either takes a long time to cultivate or is expensive to truck in. Either way it's an investment, but a worthwhile one.

My infatuation with good dirt began in earnest with a fantastic article in my free sample issue of Acres USA entitled "Soil as a Superorganism" and has developed into a full-fledged mini mania. (Wait, did I mention my stop at the Acres USA headquarters on my way through Austin last April? I was a little shy to approach the group that publishes the most well-written sustainable farming magazine around, but luckily my friend Jim talked me into stopping by. Boy, am I glad I did, and not just for the free bagel. Here's a snapshot of me hamming it up with Sam, one of the editors, during my tour of the office. Nice group, those folks: my kind of smart and wacky. And the articles and issues I've read since have been comparably impressive.)

Right. Soil.

I've been reading quite a lot about it these days. I think I know a little bit more about it than your average city slicker: the importance of organic matter and diverse microorganisms, the significance of pH and drainage capability, the critical nutrients for growing healthy vegetables. I'm still no soil scientist -- far from it, though I did have one over for dinner a couple of weeks ago -- but I have found myself sending in soil samples from the plot behind my apartment and meticulously poring over the test results from the lab and cross-examining the friendly folks at the UMD extension office. No lead? Whew. High in Phosphorus, eh? Hmmm. And low in Magnesium and Potassium? Ah, that must be why my bean plants are a little yellow in the leaves, and my beloved tomatoes are still green. (Luckily I've come up with 4 or 5 new green tomato recipes, all but one deemed a wild success. I'm just not sure about the green tomato, chocolate, and pecan muffins. Those might get pushed to the bottom of the mental recipe drawer.)

I'm beginning to learn about methods to amend (i.e. fix) deficient soil, in large part thanks to Rebecca's generous loaning of her copy of "Grow Great Grub," which recommends the addition of natural compounds ranging from comfrey tea to epsom salts to bone meal (though I'll be damned if I can find a local source for comfrey leaves). Organic compost seems to be a good general addition a few times per year, and between my outdoor Oscar the Grouch can and the indoor worm bin, I should be set in that department. I'm looking to plant a nitrogen-fixing cover crop on half of the space and fill in the rest with a few varieties of heirloom garlic over the cold months. But enough about *my* soil....

I've also gotten into the habit of encouraging friends and loved ones, and in some cases even their neighbors and landladies, to get their soil tested. Mostly for lead, since one should NOT eat food from plants grown in contaminated soil. (A way around this is to bring in fresh soil and build a raised bed.) Other soil information is helpful, too, since in recent months I've been cajoled into helping a few people convert their backyards into more biodiverse, food producing green spaces. Yes, even good old dad decided of his own free will to abandon the lawn. (Unfortunately, with the, ahem, rather late mailing in of the required soil samples, it seems we will spend the remainder of autumn preparing the land for spring planting. But all is not lost. This means for sure there will be time and space for me to try my hand at lasagne composting to build organic matter through the winter, heheh.)

People hear about my bike trip or see me puttering around my garden and start asking questions about how to get started growing food. Suddenly I am something of a resource, though an as yet unpaid one. (C'est la vie.) My next door neighbor Henry has been inspired to build a raised bed and my friend Mike's landlady just ordered a composter and a shipment of seeds for planting in the next week or so. Dad finally took a soil sample and did some sketches to determine which areas of the yard get full sun. Yay!

I am certainly not a pro at this yet -- as you might guess from my first only somewhat successful experiments with beyond-windowsill gardening -- but I'm learning. And I'm doing my best to spread the word about the importance and the ease of having one's soil tested. (I even photographed my sample drying out for the requisite 24 hours before mailing it in to the lab. What's that? No, I don't carry a copy of the photo in my wallet... that spot is reserved for portraits of my red wigglers.) You can garden in flower pots, raised beds, even old bathtubs, but if you're going to plant food crops in the ground, please, please, please get your soil tested. It's worth it. And if you're wondering how to get started, call me. I can talk dirt and food all day long.

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