Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Food (Soil and Seeds)

I have already blogged several times on food, including a comprehensive post on Feeding Ourselves in the Future (7/24/08), which covered farmer's markets, Community Supported Agriculture,producer co-operatives, eating local, buying local, consumer co-ops, family run stores, growing your own food, container gardening, community gardens, and creating food systems. So what's left? Probably the most important and basic things you need to have in order to grow food: good soil and good seeds.

Soil is a living thing--filled with bacteria, protozoa, fungi, millipedes, and mites--not to mention earthworms and plant roots. Yet it's part of the earth, with sand, clay, and all sorts of minerals in it. And it is practically a chemical factory--filled with potassium, calcium, ammonium (a source of nitrogen), copper, zinc, manganese, phosphates, magnesium, and iron--mostly in the form of ions (positively charged particles).

Many people think the only difference between organic farmers and gardeners and conventional farmers and gardeners is that the organic ones don't use pesticides. But maybe the biggest difference is that conventional growers are concerned with growing plants; organic growers concentrate on growing good soil. Conventional growers see problems with the plants and pour in fertilizer. They think that they can outguess nature. They assume that the plant needs more nitrogen, or phosphates, and pour it on. Organic growers try to feed the soil.

There are several ways to feed the soil but two of the most basic are compost and mulch. Compost is 'waste' products, fallen leaves, rotting food, manure, etc. It is all mixed together and allowed to decay until it is a rich organic stew, known as humus, full of all sorts of minerals that support soil life. (The difference between the conventional and organic approaches is similar to trying to get your vitamins and minerals in a pill, versus getting them by eating whole foods.) Mulch is stuff (often organic) that lies on the soil, protecting it, keeping it moist, and cutting down on weeds. The best mulch often decays and thus turns into compost.

Another way to build soil is with 'cover crops'--some of which can be plowed back into the soil to feed it; while others (especially the legumes) host microbes which convert nitrogen into compounds (like ammonium) which then can be used by plants.

When you have good soil, the plants will come, but if you want to have more than a lovely looking forest--if you really want to feed the world, then you need the right seeds. Heirloom seeds are from old variety plants that have been around for more than fifty years (sometimes for thousands of years), many of which are in danger of being lost. Hybrid plants have been carefully cultivated, mostly for commercial success, and their seeds are useless and often sterile. This is why there is a movement emerging of people saving heirloom (and other useful plant) seeds.

Unsurprisingly, it's corporations that are trying to control the seeds, just as it's corporations that push fertilizer for the soil and pesticides for the plants. And when Michelle Obama planted an organic garden at the White House, she got a letter from an organization representing agribusinesses like Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, and DuPont Crop Protection, expressing their 'concern' that she wasn't acknowledging "the role conventional agriculture plays in the U.S.".

I'm not going to go into all the corporate nastiness (which includes things like seed patenting, Roundup Ready seeds, and GMOs--Genetically Modified Organisms). It's enough to say that we need to take control of the use of soil and seeds, and take that control away from agribusiness.

One very creative, very noncorporate use of seeds is in making Seedballs (also known as Seedbombs). Seedballs are mixtures of clay, compost and seeds that can be used for Guerrilla Gardening. The Seedballs can be dropped or tossed anywhere there is dirt and don't need planting or watering. Vacant lots, abandoned land, and private lawns can all be reclaimed as green space--and possibly as food growing areas--although there is the need to be careful in case the soil is contaminated.

However, even if the soil is contaminated, there are methods of bringing it back--also known as bioremediation. With good soil and good seeds and a little gardening knowledge, almost anyone can feed themselves--and possibly others as well.

I'd like to conclude with Michael Pollan's advice on food: "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." That is, real food, grown from seeds in the soil.

Stu Campbell, The Mulch Book--Mulching is a great way to care for the soil--and plants
Eliot Coleman, Four Season Harvest and The Winter Harvest Handbook--How to grow foods right through the winter by a farmer in Maine
'Heavy Petal', How to make seedballs--Instructions for making Seedballs/Seedbombs
Todd Hemenway, Gaia's Garden--Good book on Permaculture and ecological design. Has an excellent chapter on 'Bringing the Soil to Life' that includes information on the biology and chemistry of soil, on composting, on sheet mulching, and on cover crops
John Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables--A book on Biointensive food growing which has a chapter on 'Building Soil, Building the Future' and another on 'Seed Propagation'--plus lots of good information on food gardening
Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew, Toolbox for Sustainable City Living--Has a chapter on 'Food' which includes tree crops, aquaculture, and mushroom cultivation; it also has a detailed chapter on 'Bioremediation'
Seed Savers Exchange--"...a non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds."
Self Watering Container Instructions--How to make a container that holds water and slowly waters whatever is growing in it
Vandana Shiva, various books including Biopiracy, Stolen Harvest, Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed, and Soil not Oil--She has lots of information on how corporations are trying to control seeds and the soil
J Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture--A classic from 1929 that was one of the sources of Permaculture. Has lots of information on acorns and nuts as food and includes a picture of muffins baked from acorn flour
Starhawk, The Earth Path--Contains a chapter on 'Earth' which includes The Cycle of Rock to Life and Seeds in Jeopardy as well as information on composting, sheet mulching, worms, and fungi; also has a chapter on 'Seeds and Weapons' which talks about corporate control of agriculture and features a story about Seedballs

Quote of the Day: "Agricultural soil should have 600 million bacteria in a teaspoon. There should be approximately three miles of fungal hyphae in a teaspoon of soil. There should be 10,000 protozoa and 20 to 30 beneficial nematodes in a teaspoon of soil. ...
"There should be roughly 200,000 microarthopods in a square meter of soil to a 10-inch depth. All these organisms should be there in a healthy soil." - Elaine Ingham


CrackerLilo said...

My brother is an agriculture major who wants to be an organic farmer and "practices" on his apartment balcony now. He talks about "feeding the soil" all the time! He'd really appreciate this, and I think you have some links to things that not even he knows about! I'll share this with him, if you don't mind.

I also want to tell you that I like the way you structured this series of posts. Sometimes I just don't know what to say, but I'm reading.

Robyn Coffman said...


Loving the blog and info.

MoonRaven said...

Thank you both for your comments. I am always glad when people find this blog helpful.

And please, CrackerLilo, share this with your brother or anyone else that you think it might be useful for.

murph said...


I'm behind on at least a dozen sites, including yours. Finally catching up some.

Good article on the soil. We are located in north central Oregon and our soil is all volcanic ash. It's taken 3 years to build our garden soil up to where it will grow something other than bitter brush and pine trees. The soil without additions contains almost no bacteria or any organic matter. Been composting everything I could get in quantity, (grass clippings in particular), old straw and hay and lots and lots of manure. Our garden area is only 1200 sq ft and last year, along with a small greenhouse, fed us, filled our freezer, and we traded food for services and gave away a lot and we are at this time eating up the last from the freezer while our current crops are going strong. I installed a small wood heater in the greenhouse to extend the growing season on both ends, (trying to do it with electricity was flat out way too expensive).

If the weather doesn't get totally weird on us, we will have another good season, even better than last.

From our perspective, the most important thing one can do is improve the soil. A great percentage of our growing land has been sterilized and degraded to the point that without oil and natural gas, it won't grow anything but hardy weeds.

A good and timely article.

MoonRaven said...

Thanks, Murph. You give a nice illustration of the importance of soil--it sounds like you did a lot of work to get your soil to where it's useful--but you're getting a nice payoff now.

I appreciate you taking the time to comment.