In the first installment of this two-part feature, I discussed the planet-saving rationale behind adopting a humus gardening approach. I also covered the first two of five tips to create a humus-rich wellness tool. Compost and mulching were discussed in depth, but now we will look at several other proven strategies that will ensure more pleasure than pain when growing your own nutrition.
Five Tips to Garden for Humus and Health
(Continued from last week)
3) Plant a cocktail cover crop
The definition of the word "science" in Webster's dictionary is "adherence to natural laws and principles". If we are to learn from Nature, we soon recognise that her greatest operating law is that of biodiversity. It turns out that plants love other plants and it really is a case of "the more the merrier". Multiple species cover crops enable us to introduce biodiversity into our gardens any time we are not cropping our soil.
Recent research from the USDA was inspired by farmers working with the principles of Brazilian agronomist, Dr Ademir Calegari. These farmers had found a remarkable transformation in soil structure when they followed his advice and included five different plant families in their cover crops. The USDA researchers discovered that, when these five species are combined, a remarkable phenomenon occurs. The plant roots of these plant families seem to communicate and then begin outpouring significant quantities of phenolic compounds. That, of course, is the reason we drink green tea. These antioxidants affect us at a cellular level with a wonderful outcome. It turns out that these antioxidants also affect single and multi-celled soil creatures in a similar fashion. In fact, the soil-life goes into hyperdrive, and the benefits from that cover cropping cycle are greatly magnified.
The five families that generate this response are grasses, cereals, legumes, brassicas and chenopods. The family most missing in commercial cover crop blends is chenopods. This group includes all members of the beet family, spinach, quinoa and amaranth. Chenopods are only required at 1% of the total blend and brassicas should not exceed 5%. The good news about this soil-changing cover crop is that most of the mix is edible. You can be harvesting a salad mix or green smoothie leaves from your cocktail cover crop. You can cut it back a couple of times with a whipper snipper to add more carbon and nutrients to the soil and then turn it in when the cycle is complete. Cocktail cover crops in the garden might include plants like corn, rye, wheat, peas, lucerne, clover, kale, silverbeet, lupins and spinach. Once again, it is "the more the merrier". It is always better to have fifteen different plants in your cover crop than five.
4) Mineralise your wellness tool
If we are to make our garden our principal wellness tool, it is imperative that we take care of all the minerals. It is important to understand that many of the phytonutrients that make our food our medicine require a variety of minerals for synthesis.
Calcium is always the starting point, as it is the single most important mineral. Calcium governs the uptake of seven other minerals and it determines resilience and soil structure. Calcium opens up your soil to allow the entry of oxygen, the most important of all elements for soil health and plant vigour. There are a number of key mineralising strategies, including the following:
Lime your soil to a pH of 6.4 – calcium is the first consideration in all gardens. Lime your soil up to a soil pH of 6.4. Mineral uptake is pH-dependent and this is the optimum pH at which most minerals are most available. Check your soil pH with a simple kit from a hardware store or nursery. If it is below 6.0, then apply lime at 2 kg per 10 m2 in a clay soil, or half of that amount in a light soil. Check your pH 12 months later to see if further adjustment is needed. In light sandy soils, magnesium may also be an alkalising requirement. Here, you might use equal amounts of dolomite and lime to reclaim balance.
Use ocean inputs – the ocean contains all 74 minerals in a perfect balance, and life-forms that grow in this medium feature high levels of all of these required minerals. Kelp (liquid seaweed) and liquid fish are essential inputs for humus gardening. The microbes that build humus and deliver the minerals into your food all need nutrition and they thrive on kelp and fish. Life Force® Organic SeaChange™ is a concentrated combination of kelp, liquid fish and fulvic acid, available from NTS.
Source a complete mineral fertiliser – you need to boost the trace minerals, including iron, manganese, copper, zinc, boron, molybdenum and cobalt, along with major minerals like calcium, magnesium, sulfur and NPK, using a complete fertiliser, in a compost base. Life Force® Gold™ is a popular example of a complete, mineralised, composted fertiliser.
Discover the power of humates – humic and fulvic acid are together called humates. They are natural acids that are found in humus. You are effectively making humic and fulvic acid when you make compost, and they account for many of the benefits of humus. These powerhouse natural acids can be extracted in concentrated form from certain types of brown coal. They are the fastest-growing inputs in regenerative agriculture because of their multiple benefits. These include increased nutrient uptake, stabilisation of leachable minerals, stimulation of root growth, dramatic improvement in soil structure, the detoxification of contaminants and the promotion of healthy, resilient plants. Most importantly, these natural substances can help trigger carbon sequestration in your soil, as they are the most powerful known stimulants of the creatures responsible for humus formation. Life Force® Instant Humus™ involves soluble humic acid granules, in 1 kg containers, for the humus gardener.
5) Nurture your precious topsoil
Despite the urgency of addressing the global warming challenge, there is another issue of extreme importance relevant to the health of our soils. At our current rate of topsoil loss, there is just 60 years until zero remains. The principal reason for this decimation of the thin veil that feeds us is the loss of humus, the ‘soil glue’ that resists erosion.
Water is rapidly becoming the new gold, as climate change bites across the globe. Humus can also be the saviour here. An increase in just 1% organic matter in your soil means that this soil can now hold 170,000 litres of water it could not previously store. That is 17 litres of water per m2 that cannot evaporate and is readily accessible beside the plant roots. Humus is the most effective known tool for water management.
We have discussed compost, fish, kelp, rock dust, humates, green manure crops and other ways to build both humus levels and nutrient density in our food. Here are some final tips to nurture your precious topsoil:
Harness earthworm power – vermicompost from earthworms is the very best of all composts. In one Queensland government study, it outperformed the second best compost, 20 fold. It is so easy to introduce a worm farm into your gardening. You can also harvest the "worm juice" by collecting the leachate. Commercial worm farms for your garden are fitted with a tap on the bottom for this purpose. This leachate is an exceptional bio-fertiliser, featuring a wide range of beneficial organisms that are uniquely incubated in the worm's gut.
Make lucerne tea to entice earthworms – lucerne hay harbours all three forms of protozoa, the favourite food of earthworms. You can simply brew up these protozoa and introduce them to your soil. This new workforce does more than feed earthworms. The protozoa begin consuming bacteria in your soil and recycling the large percentage of nitrogen in their bodies, for use by your garden plants. They can also outcompete pathogens for limited resources, so they are important players in a disease-resistant soil. Here’s how you make this tea; place 1 kg of lucerne hay into a 20 L bucket of water. The water should be aerated with a twin-outlet fish tank aerator fitted with airstones (the Life Force® Microbe Brewer™ is the perfect tool for this purpose). Add 200 mL of Life Force® Organic SeaChange™ and 100 grams of sugar to the bubbling bucket and then leave it to brew for two days. The brewed liquid can now be diluted with water at 1:10 and applied to your garden with a watering can. The earthworms will arrive shortly thereafter.
Enhance biodiversity with microbial teas – soil microbiology has been compromised and there can be great gain in restoring microbial diversity. This is as simple as making a microbial tea. Using the 20 L Life Force® Microbe Brewer™ described for lucerne tea, you can also make tea from compost or worm juice. Compost tea involves the addition of 1 kg of compost in the 20 L brewer, along with 200 mL of Life Force® Organic SeaChange™ and 100 grams of sugar. Here you brew for just 24 hours before applying to both soils and the leaf surface. Worm juice tea involves a similar timing and food source, but the microbial starter is 400 mL of worm juice instead of the compost component.
Discover Beneficial Anaerobic Microbes (BAM™) – while we are often emphasising the multiple benefits of aerobic organisms, there is a parallel universe of equal importance, beneath your feet. Lactobacillus live in your gut and on your skin in huge numbers. They also live in the soil and on every leaf surface, where they perform protective roles similar to our internal, probiotic partners. Nutri-Life BAM™ from NTS can be added to a watering can and diluted at 1:500. This equates to a little more than a tablespoon of BAM™ per 9 L watering can. The garden plants are drenched to drip-off with the watering can and there can be a dramatic increase in resilience and vigour. It is similar to the health boost that many experience when taking a probiotic supplement. Nutri-Life BAM™ can also be used for rapid composting, but here your pile must be covered with a tarp to create the anaerobic conditions in which these organisms thrive. There is no turning involved here. 8 weeks later, you will lift the tarp and discover a treasure trove of black, humus-rich soil food.
There is no room for apathy when our existence is threatened by our inaction. The common response, when confronted with something of such enormity, is to do nothing. Perhaps that is understandable when nothing can be done, but this crisis is fixable. Not only can we restore our climate but, in doing so, we improve our health and happiness. That’s one hell of a win/win.
We have a little plaque in our humus garden. It states, "To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow". I trust you may feel similarly positive and motivated to act. If so, I thank you. Remember that the person who creates a garden, believes in a future.
To go back to Part 1 of this article, please click here.
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