I’ve been on the road a lot this summer and haven’t had as much time as I would like in the garden. But I have had a wonderful chance to travel the US and think a lot about being more earth friendly in our approach to gardening. The good news is that we can make a huge start down that path with just a few easy steps. The even better news is that it’s a wonderful, life-long adventure of discovery and wonder!
The key is for us to stop growing vegetables and start tending the soil. By some estimates, we have identified and understand only 1% of the matter that makes up the soil. By other estimates, one teaspoon of healthy Midwestern soil contains 7000 microorganisms! If we work to restore a healthy organic and inorganic matter in our soil, our foods will contain more nutrients and micronutrients (for instance, anti-oxidents). Our gardens will need less water as the soil becomes a better sponge. And we will have fewer problems with harmful insects, funguses.
So what are those few starting steps?
Step 1: Stop using chemicals, including petroleum-based fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Herbicides that kill “weeds” kill beneficial plants. The pesticides that kill unwanted insects kill beneficial insects and other animals too. Even seemingly harmless inputs like Miracle Grow put the balance of nutrients so off in the soil that the microorganisms get distracted restoring that balance and stop helping your plants out. In the short term you’ll see more plant loss. But within even just a year or two the invaluable beneficial microorganisms that were collateral damage when killing the harmful insects and plants, and those put off balance by casual application of macronutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, will return in force to restore health and bring greater vigor than ever to your plants. Maybe not always in size or perfect form, but definitely in health and nutrition.
Step 2: Start composting. While you can now readily buy compost, you have no control over what has gone into that compost. Were all the harmful chemicals removed when the purchased compost was made? Were chemicals added to speed up the process? There are horror stories of land becoming fallow because of contaminated compost. This has become more severe as commercial farming practices include plant varieties that have embedded in them herbicides and insecticides (systemics) that now have been found to survive the digestive process of cows. The manure from the cows gets composted and keeps seeds from germinating when used in gardens. Only buy from highly trusted sources. Or better yet, set up a simple composting system in your backyard and start putting in your non-meat table scraps and non-weed garden scraps.
Step 3: Build your ecosystem with companion plants. A popular companion plant is marigolds because they draw in a number of beneficial insects. Many flowering natives do the same. There are some great easy-to-use charts that can help you with this. For instance, I now plant radishes with my squash and let them go to seed. That, combined with putting collars around new plants made from sleeves used with coffee cups in cafes have helped eliminate some of the key pests attacking the squash without chemicals. I just recently heard a report that suggests more important that planting lots of a few companion plants, the real goal should be one or a few plants of many different varieties. Perennials are great for this. They not only come back year after year, establishing deeper and healthier roots as they do. They also grow bigger and periodically require subdividing, allowing you to donate some biodiversity to friends and neighbors while getting new varieties and species from them. We’ve been doing this for almost two decades now and are our yard now has hundreds of different varieties and species, with a concurrent diversity of beneficial insects and birds.
Just those three simple steps will make a significant difference in just a few years. Don’t expect improvements all at once, and indeed, expect things to get worse before they get better. To fully restore some of the richest soil on earth to it’s pre-chemical health can take a decade or more and first requires getting the plants off of their addiction to our man-made drugs of petroleum-based inputs. But ultimately our own health is dependent on us diving in to make the difference.