What drives a love of gardening? Perhaps we garden for the simple pleasure of communing with the natural. Perhaps we become weekend warriors to assuage our workaholic ways, or to soothe our creative souls. Whatever your driver, I'm betting you didn't know that "minding your own patch" may be your single greatest contribution to both the health of your family and the health of your planet.
Most of us have no awareness of the seriousness of the climate change challenge. We live in our bubble of denial, where Facebook, television and sport are the opiates, softening the harsh reality of meeting the mortgage. We hear the increasing reports of drought, storms, famine and floods and they wash over us like the empty promises of politics.
I meet with climate change specialists at conferences around the world and it is rare to hear a positive prognosis for the planet. In fact, the dire warnings are now flowing freely.
Professor Guy McPherson, from Arizona State University, is a leading climate change expert. During his speaking tour of NZ last November, he shocked a prime time television audience with the announcement that there would be no humans remaining on the planet within ten years. He advised viewers to begin ticking off their bucket list dreams immediately, because the hard times will begin way before that final date.
In my recent seminar tour of the UK, a Professor who had attended my course shared that he was part of a scientific think tank that embodied the finest science brains in that region. He confided that one in five of his group believes there will be no people remaining by 2030 (just 3 years beyond Guy's grim prediction).
I have visited over 30 countries in the past year and the reason for this frantic globetrot is not a love of travel. Three years back, a prediction from the world's leading climate change scientist, NASA legend Professor James Hansen, ended my inertia. James has an unparalleled record. In decades of work, in a science awash with prediction, he has never been wrong. Three years back, James informed us that we had five years left, so now it is down to just two years. This is not a timeframe for extinction but rather a point at which we can no longer reclaim what we have lost. The damage at that point is irreversible and our children are destined to live in a world that will be a shadow of its former self.
James is not suggesting that a complete game change is required within that limited window. Instead, he believes that we need to have completed a paradigm shift (mindset change) within that time. The majority of us need to at least get to the point that we recognise the mistakes and the urgent need for change. Thankfully, I am seeing that awakening everywhere I travel and I remain optimistic. I do not subscribe to the alarming predictions of some of the experts, because I know there is a solution.
This is a pretty serious start to a feel-good gardening article, but please hang in there. The news gets much better, because there is something very real that you can do about it. This contribution will not only help save the planet, it may also improve the health, happiness and longevity of yourself and your family. Here’s how it works…
Humus Saves Your World
The blanket of greenhouse gases traps the heat that warms the world, and we would not have a livable environment without it. However, that blanket has thickened in recent decades, as human enterprise (and the energy required to fuel it) has exploded. We have quadrupled our numbers in just 70 years and carbon from coal, oil and humus has billowed into the blanket.
Carbon is stored in three places: the soil, living things, and the atmosphere (where it is stored as CO2). It moves between these three storage vehicles as part of the carbon cycle. We have lost two thirds of the largest storehouse (the soil) to the atmosphere, through faulty farming and gardening practices. Organic matter (humus) has dropped globally, from an average of 5% to just 1.5%, and this carbon is the lion's share of the offending CO2 that is changing our world and threatening our very existence. The good news is that it can be fixed!
When we change the way we farm and garden, we build, rather than lose, humus in our soils. This is direct sequestration of carbon that would otherwise have returned to the atmosphere as part of the carbon cycle. The 4 in 1000 initiative, announced by the French government at the recent Paris Climate Change conference, was a recognition of this potential. 22 countries have now agreed to incentivise the building of 0.4% (4 in 1000) organic matter each year. The science supports the fact that we can reverse climate change, if we return the carbon to the soil from where most of it came. If you can step up to the plate and nurture your backyard in the right way, your personal contribution is far more profound than putting in solar panels and turning off lights. In fact, if you sit down with a calculator, you will realise that this is the greatest strategy you can possibly adopt to help save the day!
The Ultimate Win/Win
The other good news relates to the human health role of your garden. The home food garden is your ultimate wellness tool. If you can build humus and address mineral requirements in your own patch, then you can produce chemical-free, nutrient-dense food with forgotten flavours and enhanced medicinal qualities. The father of modern medicine, Hippocrates, famously said, "Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food". A flood of studies now confirm that fresh, whole foods are replete with a remarkable range of protective nutrients and come equipped with the co-factors that optimise the uptake of that nutrition. As Hippocrates so aptly noted, there is no comparison between nutrients in bottles and those found in well-grown, fresh food.
There is a problem with this recognition, however, because our demand for cheap food and the super-efficient food producing machine that delivers on demand is not necessarily producing this "medicine". It is a fact that many fruit and vegetable farmers will not eat their own produce. They have their patch out the back to produce clean food for their family. This contaminant factor is compounded by the nutrient losses associated with transporting and storing fresh food. A snow pea, for example, loses 50% of its vitamin C lode within 12 hours of harvest. The vitamins are the worst affected. Vitamin A, the B group and vitamin C are particularly fragile, but the phytonutrients that make food "medicinal", are also seriously impacted.
When you have your own healthy, chemical-free garden, the trick is to harvest your food in the evening, directly before it is eaten. If you can compound that benefit by growing heirloom fruit and vegetables, you will be consuming champagne food and your garden becomes a profound health tool.
Hybridisation invariably involves loss of nutrition because, when plant breeders rearrange the genes in the gene pool to profit from their creations, something always suffers. The capacity for mineral uptake is most often impacted. The original heirloom varieties are far more flavorsome, because taste correlates directly to nutrition and medicinal value.
Five Tips to Garden for Humus and Health
1) Compost, compost, compost!
Humus is the sweet-smelling, chocolate-coloured substance that is produced by microorganisms and serves as their home base and support system. Composting involves our intervention in the natural process of decomposition. Here we can improve and hasten the creation of humus. Compost provides stable humus and complexed minerals to our soil, along with and an invaluable army of new recruits to the soil workforce. However, there are other major benefits to embracing compost.
Compost is a major key to sequestering carbon and countering climate change. Compost effectively restores the capacity of your soil to build humus. It replaces or regenerates the key organisms responsible for humus building. For example, compost stimulates earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi, two of the most important carbon building players in the soil. It also reintroduces a group of organisms called cellulose-digesting fungi. These humus creators are missing in many soils due to chemicals, chlorinated water, overcultivation and lack of food.
Plants pump sugars out from their roots to feed the surrounding soil-life, as part of a "give and you will receive" relationship. Part of this glucose gift can be converted to humus. Compost restores the key creatures performing this role. In one recent US study, the application of compost created nine times more humus, according to soil tests, than what was physically applied to those soils. The compost was the triggering mechanism for carbon sequestration.
The creation of a compost pile simply involves making a layer cake. You start with a carbon layer involving straw, dead leaves, sawdust or council green waste. You apply the additives described below to that layer, wet it down thoroughly, and then apply your nitrogen layer. This involves, lawn clippings, animal manure or green weeds. You repeat the same additions on that layer and then add another carbon layer (alternating, until the pile is complete).
Here are some composting tips for the home gardener:
Add a clay stabiliser – if you can include some friable clay-based soil to each layer of your compost pile or bin, there is a remarkable benefit. The fungal component of your compost will bind that clay to humus, to create a clay/humus crumb. The stable humus you have now produced will remain in the soil for a minimum of 35 years. This contrasts with active humus produced by bacteria (lawn clipping compost), which will only remain in your soil (and out of the atmosphere) for 12 months. The best super-fine and highly available form of clay for this purpose is NTS Soft Rock™. This natural source of phosphate, calcium, silica and trace minerals is actually a colloidal clay, so you get all of these minerals and the long-term humus, all-in-one.
Include a paramagnetic boost – the addition of 6% basalt crusher dust to your compost can seriously improve the composting process. The paramagnetic effect from basalt involves the measurable release of light particles called biophotons into the compost. This light stimulation multiplies the activity of the microbe workforce. There is also a broad spectrum mineral release associated with the finer particles of the crusher dust.
Don't discard your ash – the ash from your fire contains very high levels of the mineral, potassium (potash). Potassium is responsible for stem strength, photosynthesis and sizing up fruit and vegetables. It is in a highly leachable form, as fire ash, but it is completely stabilised by humus when used to enhance the fertilising value of your compost.
Add lime to each layer – a heavy sprinkle of lime is added to each layer, in all popular commercial composting processes. This practice serves three purposes. It ensures that the pH is optimal for decomposition, it ensures that calcium is present for the microbes and it eventually provides some plant-available calcium, the most important of all minerals, to your garden.
Include previous compost and manure – manure contains good levels of nitrogen and many other minerals to ensure a nutrient-rich compost. The nitrogen component is essential to achieve a good carbon to nitrogen ratio in your compost. A couple of shovelfuls of your previous compost, added to each layer of your emerging heap, serves as an inoculum to speed the decomposition of the new pile.
2) Mulch like your life depended upon it
Mulching is a critically important, core strategy for every square centimetre of bare ground in your garden. There should always be plant cover, or mulch cover, or a combination of both, because there is no food for soil-life on bare ground. Gardening is about looking after soil-life, so that they will look after you. This is how you make for stress-free pleasure during your communion with nature. A mulch cover warms and protects the soil, while nourishing its legions of inhabitants. Most importantly, mulch is converted to stable humus, which will keep carbon from returning to the atmosphere for most of your lifetime.
Here are some mulching tips:
Claim your free council mulch – in most areas of Australia, you can fill a trailer with ground-up green waste, free-of-charge, at your local recycling depot. This rich, brown mulch is perfect to feed the fungal component of your soil to sponsor the production of stable humus. You can pile this mulch 100 cm thick to discourage weeds, and the life beneath will delight. The earthworms arrive to party shortly thereafter and you should rejoice at their arrival. Earthworms decompose raw organic matter four times faster than any other humus-builders. Their castings are a remarkable fertiliser and they aerate your soil better than a spiked roller. Earthworms incubate a unique range of beneficial organisms in their gut and they inject this protective and productive inoculum throughout your soil. 12 months after applying this mulch, you can dig down and observe the thick layer of rich brown humus you have created.
Consider a fertilising mulch – lucerne hay is the best performing of all mulches because it fertilises your soil while protecting and feeding. A perfect compost has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 30:1. Lucerne mulch has that perfect ratio. It is well known as a protein-rich, nutrient dense animal feed, but it offers similar benefits to the invisible livestock beneath your feet. Lucerne mulch has a secondary benefit. It is teeming with organisms called protozoa. These creatures are the favourite food of earthworms. These wonderful workers arrive in force when the word goes out that it is feeding time at the lucerne lunch-house.
Plant a chop-and-drop living mulch – ideally, your garden should feature plantings of fast-growing leguminous plants and shrubs that can be cut and dropped on a regular basis to cover and feed the soil. These plants offer several other benefits. For example, it is a great idea to plant lucerne plants throughout your garden. The leaves are a wonderful, nutrient-dense, alkalising additive to green smoothies, the flowers are amongst the most delicious of taste treats, but it is below ground that the magic happens. Lucerne and other chop-and-drop plants, like pigeon pea, house nitrogen-fixing organisms called Rhizobia in their root nodules. In this manner, they can help supplement surrounding plants with nitrogen, the mineral found most abundantly in plants. However, legumes offer more than free nitrogen. Their roots exude acids into the soil that serve to break the bond between locked-up phosphorus and calcium in your soil. In this manner, the two most important minerals for photosynthesis are made constantly available to surrounding plants. Finally, the exudates from the roots of legumes tend to feed the beneficial fungal component in your soil. It is these creatures who bind together the soil particles to create crumb structure, the most desirable of all soil conditions.
In the next installment we will look at several other key strategies to make your garden your ultimate wellness tool.
Until then, enjoy your soil!
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