Friday, January 14, 2011

More experiments in building soil life - and these ones worked!

It's been wet here lately.  Not wet like the floods that everyone else seems to be getting hit with, but wet nonetheless.  My local weather site tells me we've 10 rain days this year (it's now day 14), putting at least 15mm into the ground over the last week (rainfall > evapotranspiration by 15mm).

This time last year our front garden beds were barren.  Sure the roses and weeds were doing well, but otherwise the soil was lifeless.  If you dug up a handful of soil, it had no smell.  There was no visible life in it.  No worms. No bugs.  Nothing other than ants baking in the sun and creating a moonscape.

The previous owner had worked really hard on those garden beds.  She'd weeded and put in manure regularly, but when we arrived there was no visible humus at all.  Was it because the plants were heavy feeders?  Were there was too many of them?  Or perhaps because it was baking in the sun without shade or mulch?  Too many chemical remedies perhaps?

We hadn't really decided what to do with that garden bed.  Maybe we were going to plant natives, but probably not vegetables. So we did the obvious - layers of wet newspaper and covered it with some lucerne hay and whatever mulch we could find.  In our case, bags of tee tree mulch because we hadn't got onto a cheap source of good local mulch yet.  This helped slow the decline, but didn't do much to improve the soil.  We figured we'd plant a few things anyway and see what worked, including a few food plants. Nothing prospered, other than the broad bean experiment and the results of that were not immediately apparent.

We figured it was the local climate - nothing grows here we thought.

So imagine our surprise when we paid our local seed saver a visit, and saw his patch growing like crazy.  Same climatic conditions, same microclimate - he's the next village along down from us.  Clearly we were doing something wrong.  And it seemed the answer was the soil.  Time to stop messing around and get focused. 

In the last few weeks we got rid of a heap of the heavy feeders (roses mainly). We spread all the compost in that we'd built up over the last little year or so on top of the tree tree mulch, put in a handful of castings from our worm farm just under the mulch near each food plant, and covered the lot with woodchips from a local tree lopper to keep it moist.  And then it rained and gave everything a really good soak.

This week we have soil life.  Heaps of it!

When putting in a couple of plants from the local nursery, we discovered soil was moist, cool and full of life. Worms, slaters, other bugs. The weeds have gone.  Clover (a great nitrogen fixer) has appeared, and so have small mushrooms which are having a great time eating and breaking down our mulch.  It's starting to look like the complex ecosystem of a rainforest floor with nitrogen fixers and fungi doing all the work for us.  Just the thing for for a damp climate.

Clover and fungi hard at work. They invited themselves to dinner.

And our plants are now starting to grow like crazy.  Tomatoes are about to abound.

Happy days.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Joneses

    Nice one. Just picking up from this and an earlier post re soil building, what you say is similar to my own experience, although I am a bit more tropical than you. We went from clay and rock and iron bars to dig to sinking spades in 4 years - all by the power of what you have described. Keeping the earth alive with anything that makes or contains carbon is all that was needed; oh, and pigeon pea was fantastic for breaking through the hard pan. Chop and drop, chop and drop - still we chop and drop, and still we marvel. I might be raving. Thanks for the read. Bryan