Fertility in the Garden

As part of the work that I do I teach a series of nine monthly workshops that are essentially based on the material in From Seed to Table. I have about a dozen people in each workshop and once a month I bring a meal of local and seasonal foods, we eat together, talk about gardening, and then have a small discussion on a related environmental topic.  The workshops are hosted at someone’s house – they provide the space, dishes and tea and coffee, and a vacant garden.  In return the host gets the workshop for free and, along with the other participants, I plant their garden.  Through the course of the workshops we watch it grow, and eat from its harvest.  I really enjoy these workshops, both because I have met many wonderful people but also because it is really rewarding to see how much people love to grow their own food.  People seem absolutely thrilled by the whole process.

As a total aside – I do think that growing one’s own food is an integral part of our humanity, an essential part of life.  I think that over the past 60 years we have had so many of our essential tasks taken from us by science and by business, tasks such as growing food, cooking food, caring for and feeding our children, and understanding our own health.  I am not quite sure why we have embraced science and professionalism quite the way we have – to the extent that we have lost our own power and knowledge – perhaps our ancestors experiences during the war and the depression were so difficult that they were happy to have someone else ‘take charge’.  But what I see is that many of us feel empty without these tasks and find incredible fulfillment is rediscovering them.  It always brings me joy to hear the excitement that people get when they harvest those first garden vegetables, the pride they have in what they have done.  It reaffirms my belief that growing and nurturing are so important for human health and for the health of this planet.

Back to the original point of this Blog!!!

In our workshop last week my hosts showed me their 500 or so square foot garden.  The section that we had planted in April looked beautiful, lush and green, with peas, salad greens, green garlic, lettuces, and beets.  However the rest of the garden looked somewhat sad.  When we talked about it, it turned out that the April bed had been fertilized with quite a few bags of purchased sheep manure.  The remainder of the garden was fertilized with some compost from a nearby horse farm.  My host said she felt that the compost ‘did not look quite right’ – good for her for understanding her intuition.  She showed me the remainder of the pile and it certainly did not look that good.  There were no worms in the pile and the colour was dull.  To me it looked like a pile of decomposed shavings with some manure in it – which it probably was.  I ride horses and get most of my manure from horses, but I do know that different stables have vastly different management practices.  Some are very frugal with the shavings that they use for bedding, so the poop to bedding ratio is high and others throw away a large amount of shavings for a small amount of manure.

There were many parts to this learning experience.  First of all, look for healthy compost, dark and rich with lots of life in it.  Second of all – at least in my part of Southern Ontario – it is almost impossible to find  animal compost that does not have shavings as the bedding.  Shavings do not provide the dark, rich compost that straw or grass does.  Similarly, many municipal compost facilities provide compost that is very high in leaf matter, again this lightens up the soil but it does not provide much in the way of nutrients.  Both shavings and leaf matter are acidic, and eventually they lower the pH of your soil to where it is not optimum for growing vegetables.  You can compensate for this by adding agricultural lime to your soil, but in my opinion, you are still undermining the overall health of your soil.

So what is the answer here.  For years I brought home shavings and manure which I added to my compost along with straw and kitchen and garden waste but I began to see a change in the look of my soilI.  I now only bring home the poop, but this means I do not get any urine in my compost mix – a major source of nitrogren.  Anyone who I have seen that has used the purchased sheep manure has had a beautiful and bountiful garden, but this can cost a significant amount of money each year.  And organic farmers, as well as many conventional farmers, know that their manure is valuable stuff and needed on their own fields.  As more and more people begin to grow some of their own food, where will we find an economic and viable source of fertility?  At the rist of being controversial, I would argue that we need to think about human waste.  If organic farming is about closing the nutrient cycle and recycling nutrients, then we as a culture have ignored one huge part of the nutrient cycle.  We mix our own compost with toxic chemicals, pharmaceuticals and water and send it out into the oceans, instead of returning it to the ground where it belongs.  Composting toilets, anyone?

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