In a natural environment, a carrot would grow, become fat, then die and rot back into the soil, giving the nutrients it had absorbed back to the soil.
However, we come along and pull it out. To maintain fertile, healthy soil we need to continually replace the nutrients we remove when we harvest our vegetables and herbs. Using the no dig method of gardening, this is simply done by regularly adding fresh organic matter to the surface of the beds. Nature is designed to incorporate material that falls on the surface, down into the bottom layers. By organic matter I mean compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to the surface. (I will discuss each of these in detail in later columns.)
As soon as you have added a layer of organic matter, the natural decomposition process begins: earthworms come up at night and pull it down into the soil, rain breaks it down and micro organisms get to work. In no time it will be converted into humus for your plants’ roots.
Although most of a plant’s requirements come from oxygen, carbon and hydrogen, up to 60 different elements have been identified in plants. Sixteen of these are essential for plants to grow vigorously and productively. A deficiency of any of these nutrient elements may limit plant growth and productivity and make them vulnerable to disease. For plants to function properly, it is up to us as gardeners to make sure all the raw material is available to them and to keep the soil in the best condition possible. Firstly we need to ensure that our vegetables are planted in nutrient rich soil. Secondly, the soil needs to have just the right balance of air pockets as well as moisture. This is a lot easier than it sounds: As I said earlier all we need do is to continually add compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch to our gardens.
Despite never planning to be a gardener, the green fingers of my mother, and her mother before her, were inevitably passed down to me. I remind myself of my mother so often – especially when I’m gathering slips from someone else’s garden to bring home to mine. When I recognise the name of a plant or instinctively know how to do something, I realise how much I must have absorbed as a child. My mother, now in her eighties, is still actively gardening her large Pietermaritzburg slice of heaven.
But you don’t need ancestral green fingers to learn how to grow a delicious garden. The more attuned you become to your environment, the easier it will be. Organic gardening is about creating a biologically balanced ecosystem. My vegetable garden has been in the same place for fifteen years.
By continually growing green manures and cover crops, and adding organic matter, I now have soil that is more fertile than when I started. In addition to improved soil, I have fewer pest and disease problems than in the beginning, when I didn’t have as much variety growing in my garden. By eliminating chemicals and poisons, the earth regenerates, natural cycles develop, food chains become established and we can harvest vegetables and herbs that taste the way nature intended.
Next week I will talk about compost, manure, green manure, leaf mould and mulch in more detail.
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