by Betty Harris
Most of us have no memory of where we get our ideas from or why we do the things we do. Here is one example: Statement of “fact”: Goats eat tin cans. Source: Not sure but most likely because lots of poorer people in the back country have scrub goats that they pasture in areas where they also throw their trash and goats like woody plant matter and tin cans have paper on them – thus plant matter. Truth: Goats eat a greater variety of plant matter than most other species including yucca plants! Ouch! But they are factitious eaters and will not eat anything that falls on dirty bedding in their stalls. However, cows will eat that, manure and all.
Ok, so we have an example that makes sense. Here is the next challenge.
Idea stuck in our heads: all plant matter is trash and must be removed and put in plastic bags and we must pay the trash service to remove it.
Source: unknown but perhaps it is an old sales pitch by some garbage removal service.
Truth: The earth is better off if we garden like God does. If it falls on the ground, He leaves it.
What do you do then with all that plant matter?
We must admit that we live in a desert which has a thin layer of topsoil, if we are lucky, and then some sand and underneath it all a lot of clay. Many people who try to grow things in their back yards discover that the builder back-filled to create a yard surface with all kinds of junk. Our back was littered with chunks of asphalt down about 6 inches.
Regardless of where we got the idea that all plant matter is trash, we end up trashing the future by giving it to the trash man when it is needed desperately to create soil out of the chemistry we call dirt. This dirt covers our yards and requires fertilizers and other expensive inputs to make that green carpet that we insist on having laid down on top of that awful dirt.
Dirt is chemistry, soil is biology. Soil has to be built up by additions of organic matter that lure in worms and all kinds of other ground critters to break it down. Organic matter that falls on top is taken down into the ground, and is eaten by various kinds of life. Nutrients are exchanged between plants and ground animals to the benefit of all.
When European settlers came to this country, the soil was alive and rich with nutrients because the native peoples didn’t have black plastic bags or trash services. Do a bit of research, genealogy in particular, and you can see how greats numbers of white settlers moved across the country based on farming practices that killed the soil, wearing it out until it wouldn’t grow enough food to keep them healthy. As soil depletion prompted moving to another area covered with trees and thus full of humus, the people cut the trees and grew crops, and some learned to do cover crops to replenish the soil.
Modern agricultural practices create dirt from soil rather than the other way around. But we are not corporate farmers. We are backyard gardeners who can produce a lot of food for our families and friends. We frequently start by tilling the dirt, trying to kill weeds or grass, adding topsoil and other soil supplements that we buy in bags to try to make the dirt into soil. Tilling mostly kills the soil life, and spreads weed seeds and bind weed roots that continue to spread.
What should we do differently? Think before you trash your children’s future. Think about what you can do with the grass clipping ON your property rather than at the curb. Think about what you can do when pruning of trees, bushes and other plants.
Consider that if there are plant trimmings that have lots of seeds that you don’t want to spread, put just the seed heads in the trash. But cut up the rest into small segments and drop them on the soil just under the plants you are trimming. Gardening expert Eric Toensmeier calls this “chop and drop.” It mimics what God does.
Mulch your flower and garden beds with leaves, grass clippings and bits of the plant trimmings. But thorny things such as rose bushes can prick you later, so go ahead and give them the heave ho.
To compost, do you need a compost bin? No. But use one if you want to be extremely neat. You will most likely have a lot more organic matter than your composter can handle. So layer it in places out of the way, under trees and bushes, along paths to keep the weeds down. It all turns brown soon enough, and when it becomes soil it turns black. Do a bit of googling about Lasagna gardening, worm farms, worms in general. Read a book by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis titled Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. You’ll find this book at Bemis Library so don’t have to own a copy. While there, pick up a book titled, The Earth Moved: The Amazing Accomplishments of Earth Worms.
Let’s try not to trash the present or the future. If you can turn it into soil or mulch, keep it to build a better soil and thus a better tomorrow.