One of the amazing things about my life is the amazing people in it. Today I got a package of fungus spores from Bountiful Gardens (along with some seeds I had also ordered). These two things are intimately connected.
My friend Gowan, you see, is a Horticultural Oracle, and a great gift she has given me is to share her love of dirt.
Most of us don’t think to much about the dirt, really. It’s there, the plants grow in it and we walk on it, and some things burrow through it, but mostly we fail to appreciate that dirt is not a dead and inert mass of decayed organic matter and pulverized rock and whatever minerals are leached out of the rain. It’s a ginormous organism, teeming with life. Macro organisms like earthworms are there, sure, but also micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi, that work together with plants to make plants healthier and more efficient at extracting nutrients from soil and putting nutrients into soil. Beneath our feet are entire worlds.
Conventional farming kills these tiny, complex worlds. The plowing and harrowing and tilling break up the delicate networks of micorrhizae, expose tender bacteria to ultraviolet light from the sun and the drying air above ground. We plant our crops in soil impoverished by the death and destruction of the soil organisms, and as a result end up having to drench them in chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
So here I am with a back acre that was denuded of topsoil a decade or two ago by a rapacious former owner, goats and chickens to feed, and the excellent guidance of a Horticultural Oracle to lead me on my way. In hand I have packets of seeds — legumes, vetches, grasses — and packets of soil organisms. Also, I have a steady and reliable supply of chicken and goat manure, along with their used bedding, which is working on becoming compost (with help from the chickens themselves). But it would take a lot more compost than I’ve got to get the back acre turned from a desolate wasteland of thorny brush and invasive trash pines into good forage for the critters, hence the seeds and spores.
The goats have done a magnificent job of clearing away what dead growth there was and pruning back the pine trees until the plants that are there could get some sunshine. The chickens did some loosening of the soil surface but not enough, so I cheated and got my neighbor to run over the naked bits with his tiller just this once, so that my seeds and spores wouldn’t just slide off the compacted surface of the clay at the first rain. The chickens, helpfully, have been going over the tilled areas and breaking the big clumps of soil up, and also pooping and then tilling that into the soil for me, so there’s little pockets of plant nutrition here and there.
After this Saturday, the poor chickens will lose their liberty for a while. Hopefully I will sell off all the spare bantams, and then the chickens will be confined to quarters so that I can go traipsing through the tilled bits of the back acre, scattering seeds and spores and water without being followed by mob of ravenous feathery beasts intent on snarfing down my precious seeds. After that, it’s up to the seeds, the spores, and the good Lord’s inclination to give me lots of sunshine but just enough rain to germinate the little buggers. By springtime, it is entirely possible that the blighted back acre will be well on its way to an accelerated recovery of topsoil, helped along by the application of extra compost when available and deposits of used goat bedding and fallen leaves from the oak trees. With grace, the dead areas will turn green with clover and vetch and grasses and brassicas, and once the plant life is mature enough that it’s no longer primarily water, the goats and chickens will be turned loose to devour and turn the greenery into more compost, which will decay there on the dirt and provide food for yet more plants.
Some day, I may even be able to look back at that acre and see a pasture of amazing rich forage with nearly entirely recovered soil, and I won’t need to monitor it as religiously for a need for another application of seed or spores. All because Gowan shared with me a love of dirt.