Many people are demanding organic, based on political, nutritional, and environmental reasons. Implicit in the reason to return to natural production methods is the fact that beneficial organisms are killed by the use of toxic chemicals. This sets up toxic chemical users to need more and more and more toxic chemicals to maintain the system to the point that an addiction to those toxic chemicals is formed.
How do you “Just Say No” to that addiction? Switching from using synthetic chemical fertilizers and toxic pesticides to using organic products does not fix the problem caused by toxic chemicals. If we only use natural products that kill pests, weeds or diseases, the problem has not been solved, and the “organic grower” will not be successful. “The switch” must involve a wholly new approach, which requires working with nature, instead of combatting and fighting nature.
Gardening with nature is preventative. We deal with the cause of diseases, pests, or poor fertility. The toxic chemical approach tries to suppress symptoms of the problem, instead of fixing the problem. By merely trying to suppress the symptoms, the problem typically gets worse and worse, which leads to more and more chemical use. This results in a loss of nutrients, as well as the toxic chemicals leaching from the soil and polluting our water systems. All this occurs because the beneficial soil life, which is normally present in healthy soil, is lost.
Chemical companies love people who mindlessly follow their instruction, never asking why growing food gets more and more expensive and involves ever greater amounts of ever more toxic chemicals. Since toxic chemicals do not deal with the problem, but rather with symptoms, we get drawn into a chemical downward spiral. If we try to stop toxic chemical use, our plants do not do well. Failure is often the case if we try to get off the downward spiral by simply shifting to using organic products.
To win our freedom from toxic chemicals, we must start gardening with nature. The key to gardening with nature—to true organic gardening—is to recognize the power of beneficial microorganisms, elements little known or understood by the general public.
Organic growing is different from using chemicals for several important reasons. First, we need to have most of the nutrients present in the soil in non-leachable forms most of the time. We need to have the mechanisms in that soil to convert those not-available-to-plant nutrients into plant-available nutrients IN THE ROOT ZONE, for the most part, not away from the roots. The mechanisms to do this conversion process are beneficial microbes -- bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and microarthropods. The beneficial species of these organisms are naturally found in healthy growing systems, not the disease species.
Simply putting down the highest quality, most expensive organic nutrients in your garden is not likely to result in great plant growth, unless the correct microbes are present. Beneficial bacteria and fungi are needed first to degrade any residual toxic chemicals in your growing environment. Then bacteria and fungi are needed to tie-up nutrients so those nutrients are not leachable, and thus are not lost when water moves through the soil. Finally, bacteria and fungi need to be eaten by protozoa and nematodes to release tied-up nutrients in a plant available form. If any of the species that do this processing in your soil are missing, then we need to get them back. If life is missing in your soil, we need to give Mother Nature a jump-start to help her reestablish the normal set of organisms, and thus, reestablish normal nutrient cycling.
Clearly this process involves more than simply laying down a set of mineral nutrients. We need to educate people to understand that plants can, indeed, take care of themselves without people getting in the way. No need to have complex feeding schedules and mind-boggling mathematical calculations on rates of adding nutrients or adjusting pH. In the gardening with nature approach, we provide nutrients and a diversity of microbes to transform those nutrients, and the plants do the rest. Microbes, then, hold on to nutrients and they no longer leach from the soil, so you can use far fewer nutrients. Microbes also restructure the soil by creating air passageways and cavities that enable water and air to be retained within the soil, so you use considerably less water. You save money, time, and energy, and the health of your plants improve. Plants contain more nutrients and have built up their immune systems to become resistant to problem pests and diseases, leading to higher yields and plants that grow bigger and faster.
There are some complications that can arise when gardening with nature. Most significantly, complications arise because our gardens are not isolated. Though we have added microbes and organic nutrients, we still may have problems from environmental disturbances beyond our control—pesticide drift from a neighboring yard, acid rain, freezing weather, scorching heat, chlorine and chloramine in our watering systems, or too many salts. We must continue to tend our gardens and be watchful. We must continue to add microbes and nutrients. However, less maintenance will be required each year, as our soils increase in organic matter and microbe populations. Maintaining a healthy population of 70 percent of beneficial microbes in soils and on plant surfaces will nurture a protective type of environment that will thwart any disease-causing organisms that may come along, simply by outcompeting them for food and space.
Excerpts from Preface to 10 Steps To Gardening With Nature: Using Sustainable Methods To Replicate Mother Nature written by Carole Ann Rollins, Ph.D. and Elaine Ingham, Ph.D.
What if we could reduce greenhouse gas emissions and grow enough food to feed our ballooning population using resources we already have? Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us, thinks we can do just that. And like a growing number of scientists, farmers, and good food advocates, she believes that in order to fix the problems in the sky, we need to put our eyes and ears to the ground.
The Soil Will Save Us is part soil science primer, part history lesson on environmental degradation and the efforts to fight it, and part manifesto on restoring our relationship with the land. The reader follows Ohlson as she travels the globe—from her childhood home near Cleveland, Ohio to Perth, Australia—to learn about how people can revive soils damaged by decades of drought, erosion, and poor land management.
Ohlson explains that plants naturally capture carbon from the air, in the form of carbon dioxide, and turn it into food for everyone from soil bacteria to human beings—or what ecologist Christine Jones dubs “the very first carbon-trading scheme.” This symbiotic process relies on the intricate relationships between light and dark, water and air, and the wide array of organisms that live in the soil. Ohlson likens the bustling world of soil microorganisms to Whoville, Dr. Seuss’ imagined city floating in a speck of dust, writing: “The Whoville in that teaspoon of soil is more like Mexico City. Imagine how many microorganisms are in a cup of healthy soil. More than all the humans who have ever lived.”
Ohlson argues that the rise of agriculture has actually diminished our understanding of the rich and delicate ecosystem just below the ground. She indicts industrial agriculture in particular, as harsh practices like tilling our farmlands and saturating the ground with synthetic fertilizers have led to a swift and steady decline in soil health. The effects on our climate have been staggering. “The world’s soils have lost up to 80 billions tons of carbon…[and] land misuse accounts for 30 percent of the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere,” Olson writes.
That’s right—that “unstoppable loss” of the Antarctic shelf and the ensuing 15 feet in sea level rise we heard a lot about last month? How we farm is a big part of the problem.
On the bright side, Rattan Lal, director of the Carbon Management and Sequestration Center (C-MASC) at Ohio State University, argues that we can capture some, if not most, of that carbon back by letting plants do what they do best: photosynthesis. “The carbon in the soil is like a cup of water,” Lal posits in the book. “We have drunk more than half of it, but we can put more water back in the cup. With good soil practices, we can reverse global warming.” Lal believes we can restore three billion tons of atmospheric carbon to the soil each year and he works with scientists on test plots around the world to develop practices to promote carbon sequestration.
It’s not just scientists who are repairing soils, however. On the other side of the globe, Olsen spent time with Allan Savory, who walks barefoot through the grasslands near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. “People with shoes aren’t aware of how damned hot the soil gets,” Savory said as he explained how the soil’s heat is a symptom of rampant desertification. A former botanist and zoologist, Savory founded the Africa Centre for Holistic Management because, like Lal, he believes we can bring our soils back to life. To do so, he enlists the help of those he once thought were responsible for the degradation he sees today: cattle.
Savory believed for years that range herds made the grasslands dry and brittle, until he visited a South African farmer who had managed to rebuild his soils by mimicking ancient grazing patterns among his cattle. As Ohlson writes, “humans unintentionally changed the way the herds impacted the grasslands when they domesticated them.” Allowing herds to graze in tight groups for short periods of time, like they do in the face of predators, could actually reverse desertification. The animals trample green plant material into the soil and create hoof prints that act as shallow pools for rainwater to collect. As the ground soaks up water, more and more plants and microorganisms once again find a suitable place to live.
In North Dakota, farmer Gabe Brown accidentally adopted practices similar to Savory’s. For four years, Brown lost most of his crops to extreme weather; in response, he planted cover crops and allowed his cattle to graze through the wreckage. “That was a tough time, but it was the best thing that could have happened, because I never would be where I am today without those four years. We were forced to change,” Brown told Ohlson.
Making the switch to more holistic forms of land management has helped save Brown money he would have otherwise spent on expensive synthetic fertilizers and has improved his soil health dramatically. This, in turn, has led to a healthy combination of plants, microorganisms, fungi, and insects that all work together to keep pests and disease at bay. His fields have never been more productive.
Ohlson weaves these stories together among many others and in so doing evokes the interconnectedness of the world underground. While much of The Soil Will Save Us celebrates the farmers and scientists who are leading the charge toward a better ecosystem, Ohlson reminds us that we all have a part to play. As eaters, we can support food grown in harmony with the soil, but that’s not all.
“What we do with our urban green matters, whether it’s in our yards or our parks or even our highway median strips,” she writes. Indeed, the soil can only save us if we start building a world where healthy plants can take root, no matter where they are.
- See more at: http://civileats.com/2014/06/05/the-soil-will-save-us-a-manifesto-for-restoring-our-relationship-with-the-land/#sthash.WyWboEuC.dpuf
February 16, 2015
Ancient Rocks Show Life Could Have Flourished on Earth 3.2 Billion Years Ago
by Hannah Hickey
A spark from a lightning bolt, interstellar dust, or a subsea volcano could have triggered the very first life on Earth. But what happened next? Life can exist without oxygen, but without plentiful nitrogen to build genes – essential to viruses, bacteria and all other organisms – life on the early Earth would have been scarce. The ability to use atmospheric nitrogen to support more widespread life was thought to have appeared roughly 2 billion years ago. Now research from the University of Washington looking at some of the planet’s oldest rocks finds evidence that 3.2 billion years ago, life was already pulling nitrogen out of the air and converting it into a form that could support larger communities.
“People always had the idea that the really ancient biosphere was just tenuously clinging on to this inhospitable planet, and it wasn’t until the emergence of nitrogen fixation that suddenly the biosphere become large and robust and diverse,” said co-author Roger Buick, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Our work shows that there was no nitrogen crisis on the early Earth, and therefore it could have supported a fairly large and diverse biosphere.”
The results were published Feb. 16 in Nature. The authors analyzed 52 samples ranging in age from 2.75 to 3.2 billion years old, collected in South Africa and northwestern Australia. These are some of the oldest and best-preserved rocks on the planet. The rocks were formed from sediment deposited on continental margins, so are free of chemical irregularities that would occur near a subsea volcano. They also formed before the atmosphere gained oxygen, roughly 2.3 to 2.4 billion years ago, and so preserve chemical clues that have disappeared in modern rocks.
Even the oldest samples, 3.2 billion years old – three-quarters of the way back to the birth of the planet – showed chemical evidence that life was pulling nitrogen out of the air. The ratio of heavier to lighter nitrogen atoms fits the pattern of nitrogen-fixing enzymes contained in single-celled organisms, and does not match any chemical reactions that occur in the absence of life. “Imagining that this really complicated process is so old, and has operated in the same way for 3.2 billion years, I think is fascinating,” said lead author Eva Stüeken, who did the work as part of her UW doctoral research. “It suggests that these really complicated enzymes apparently formed really early, so maybe it’s not so difficult for these enzymes to evolve.” Genetic analysis of nitrogen-fixing enzymes have placed their origin at between 1.5 and 2.2 billion years ago.
“This is hard evidence that pushes it back a further billion years,” Buick said. Fixing nitrogen means breaking a tenacious triple bond that holds nitrogen atoms in pairs in the atmosphere and joining a single nitrogen to a molecule that is easier for living things to use. The chemical signature of the rocks suggests that nitrogen was being broken by an enzyme based on molybdenum, the most common of the three types of nitrogen-fixing enzymes that exist now. Molybdenum is now abundant because oxygen reacts with rocks to wash it into the ocean, but its source on the ancient Earth – before the atmosphere contained oxygen to weather rocks – is more mysterious.
The authors hypothesize that this may be further evidence that some early life may have existed in single-celled layers on land, exhaling small amounts of oxygen that reacted with the rock to release molybdenum to the water. “We’ll never find any direct evidence of land scum one cell thick, but this might be giving us indirect evidence that the land was inhabited,” Buick said. “Microbes could have crawled out of the ocean and lived in a slime layer on the rocks on land, even before 3.2 billion years ago.”
Future work will look at what else could have limited the growth of life on the early Earth. Stüeken has begun a UW postdoctoral position funded by NASA to look at trace metals such as zinc, copper and cobalt to see if one of them controlled the growth of ancient life.
Other co-authors are Bradley Guy at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa, who provided some samples from gold mines, and UW graduate student Matthew Koehler. The research was funded by NASA, the UW’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory, the Geological Society of America and the Agouron Institute. For more information, contact Buick at 206-543-1913 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Healthy vineyards grow more than grapes
Napa Valley Register, 2.17.14, by Howard Yune
CALISTOGA: What helps to absorb greenhouse gases, extend the life of farmland and keep soil moist in times of drought? At one of the Napa Valley’s most famed wineries, growers turn their eyes downward for their answer – toward the humble-looking, easy-to-miss plants between the rows of grapevines.
Most visitors at the Chateau Montelena grounds may first notice the columns of vines producing grapes for its famed vintages. On Sunday afternoon, however, a group of visitors turned their attention instead to the Blando Brome grasses, barley and other ground-cover plants filling the 8-foot-wide gaps between the rows.
Encompassing a program of cover crops and extensive composting, its supporters say, is the goal of allowing the soil and its inhabitants to fulfill their normal purposes.
“It’s all about balance; we want to maintain what we already have (in the soil),” said Dave Vella, Chateau Montelena’s vineyard manager. “We’re not going to ‘improve’ on anything. … You have to look at soil like a big checking account; you make a deposit and you get a return, but you can’t keep withdrawing from the soil.”
About a dozen species of soil-hugging vegetation serve as counterpoint and guardian to Chateau Montelena’s famed vines. By pulling carbon dioxide from the air, retaining water, harboring pest-hunting insects and strengthening the ground against erosion, the plants form what its creators – Vella and the agronomist Bob Shaffer – describe as a safeguard against the fields’ exhaustion, a step they urged other farmers to emulate to lessen the burden of fertilizer and pesticide costs.
On Sunday, Shaffer and Vella led about 20 visitors past vineyards serving as living test beds for different cover plants and farming techniques. Between certain vine rows were experimental plant choices such as strawberry clover or Cucamonga brome; other rows had been left unmowed for a season, to lessen soil compaction that would slow the absorption of water.
Such experimentation, according to Shaffer, will permit future growers greater economy in the use of fertilizer, by learning which minerals already are plentiful. The light-touch approach also is meant to preserve the earthworms, nematodes, bacteria and other organisms that break down plant matter into the organic material that gives crops – including grapes – their character and quality.
“It used to be said that wine is made in the winery. Actually, wine is made in the vineyard,” said Shaffer, a soil culture specialist in Honaunau, Hawaii who advises grapegrowers and other farmers. “If you run down your supply of food, you will see it in your grapes. Quality goes down, the color goes down and the yield goes down.”
Earlier Sunday, Vella said his plant-based, less resource-intensive approach had its roots years before he joined Chateau Montelena in 1985. His misgivings about the soil’s future inspired him to begin a manure application program, and then to accept Shaffer’s guidance on soil management starting in the mid-1990s.
“I’d been coming here since 1976 and I’d notice that between the vine rows, the wild mustard and weeds you see there were starting to look anemic – there was very little growth there,” he recalled. “That said to me that we were seeing depletion after having this land farmed for years and years.”
Later in the tour, a dose of replenishment arrived at Chateau Montelena – on the back of a truck. Onto a gravel road rolled an aromatic, chocolate-brown load of compost, which the Recology recycling and waste collection firm had broken down in a Vacaville plant from food wastes generated by San Francisco’s homes and restaurants.
Vella quickly grabbed a fistful from the chest-high pile, taking a deep whiff of its scent – the signature of humus, the broken-down organic matter that accounts for about half the composition of fertile soil. Added to vine rows already anchored by cover grasses, the combination would hold more water close to the vines’ root zones, helping preserve them through summers marked by two seasons of drought in Napa County.
F or its growing popularity, however, composting presents farmers a basic problem – a tight supply awaiting relief from more efficient diversion of food wastes.
“We have all of this food we put our best land and our best scientists to grow, and yet half of (food waste) goes to the landfill? That is an insult to our farmers!” exclaimed Shaffer.
If the supply of compost can be increased, such techniques promise a less costly and more tenable path for future farming, said Recology spokesman Paul Giusti. “If you work with Mother Nature rather than try to fool Mother Nature, it seems to work a whole lot better,” he said.
Photo caption: Dave Vella, vineyard manager at the Chateau Montelena winery near Calistoga, samples a load of compost at winery vineyards Sunday during a tour and presentation on the importance of cover-crop planting and composting to reduce the use of pesticides and fertilizer.
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