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Hows and Whys of Organic Soil
Last Post 17 Mar 2013 07:05 PM by Mark Drummond. 16 Replies.
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Mark DrummondUser is Offline
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Mark Drummond

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31 Jan 2013 11:48 AM  
Folks, this forum is a valuable resource for Maine - lets make use of it. Im hoping that there are folks out there as interested in organic soil as I am and are ready to jump in and intelligently discuss soil. An organic soil, properly constructed will mean the difference between success - or not.

I'd like to discuss all aspects of organic soil; HOW and WHY it works, assorted soil recipes, soil amendments, rock dusts/flours, compost teas, enzyme teas, Botanical Teas, Dynamic Accumulator plants, compost, vermicompost - etc. My name is Mark and Ive been studying organic soil for some years and have had tremendous results by implementing organics into my gardens.

Where to begin? First, lets touch briefly on how an organic soil works.

In an organic soil we do not use chemical fertilizers. We count on soil microbes, ie: bacteria and fungi to break down organic matter into usable plant food and organic compounds. These bacteria generally are found in composting/composted organic matter and worm castings. Out in our outdoor gardens they may be found naturally if there is enough organic matter in the soil, for our potting soils and greenhouses we need to add these two products to make sure that there is sufficient microbial activity. These two items are the heart and soul of any organic soil - all the amendments in the world cant make up for the lack of soil microbes.

Soil microbes/bacteria dont have teeth (obviously) to break down organic matter or soil amendments - they excrete enzymes to do the work for them. This is exactly how composting works - by assorted bacteria utilizing enzymes to break down organic matter. Chemical fertilizers can be immediately available for plants to use as food, (usually though a chelating agent known as EDTA) but with organic soil we need for our organic fertilizers to become naturally broken down into thier base elements before plants can use them as food, thus the importance of soil microbes. We often see farmers adding manure at the end of the summer or early in the season, because it can burn plants if we dont give the soil bacteria the neccessary time to break it down first. This "breaking down" of organic matter is called Nutrient Cycling. Nutrient cycling is, again how any organic matter, including organic fertilizers, are able to be broken down into a form that is now able to be used by plants as natural plant food.

Im really hoping thatwe can get some good discussion going here, folks. This is a fascinating subject to me, and in todays world of chemical this and chemical that, is a subject that can benefit us all.

Any takers for exchanging some views, dialogue and chat about this very intriguing and interesting subject?

Mark
Livermore Falls, Maine


Argyle AcresUser is Offline
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31 Jan 2013 07:26 PM  
I grew up on a 'conventional' farm. The soil had became like blow-sand. It is no more than a growing media with no nutrients of it's own. Any and all nutrients needed for the crop come from fertilizers which is largely petroleum-chemicals. They do not want soil to have micro-organisms as they are seen as interfering with petrochem nutrient uptake.

Organic soil is filled with life.
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31 Jan 2013 08:09 PM  
Hi Argyle - thanks for the response.

It's a very unfortunate thing, re: petro-chemical farming. It's a viscious circle; the soil life dies and is no longer able to sustain plant health on its own and as a result more and more chemical fertilizers must be relied on. Plants are much more prone to disease and insect damage.

According to USDA data, farmers sprayed a whopping 57 million pounds of glyphosate on food crops in 2009—mainly on genetically engineered corn and soy crops. Because glyphosate is a systemic chemical, it actually works its way inside the plant and winds up inside of food at alarming levels. The chemical is linked to potentially irreversible metabolic damage, infertility, obesity, learning disabilities, and birth defects. (organicgardening.com) - Can you say Monsanto folks! Monsanto - (probably THE most evil company in the world) but that is for another conversation.

We all know how much better organic produce tastes than chemical fertilizer produced vegetables, and it also is able to demand a higher price - people, myself included don't mind paying (to a certain extent, obviously) a little more for a product that we know is better for us and frankly is more enjoyable to eat.

Organic soil can be used over and over again with only slight re-amending each year. Soil high in organic matter holds moisture better - we don't have to water as often and as a result have healthier plants!

Mark
Livermore Falls, Maine
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01 Feb 2013 09:59 AM  
Organic Potting & Garden Soil

Its very easy to construct your own potting soil, which can be either basic or complex, depending on your needs, cost and knowledge.

Basic soil construction -

First we start out with a "Base Soil". Generally this should be started with either Sphagnum Peat or ProMix/Sunshine Mix. The ProMix and Sunshine mix products basically consist of sphagnum peat with a little bit of aeration (Perlite) and a small charge of lime to raise the pH of the slightly acidic peat. Sphagnum Peat is often chosen as a large part of an organic soil due to its ability to loosen clay soils, provide a good amount of drainage and yet improve the water holding capacity of sandy soils. It also has a good CEC (Cation Exchange Capacity, which is the ability of a soil to hold minerals/nutrition) and is pretty inexpensive.

As I briefly touched on before, an organic soil is actually a dynamic, living (collectively) organism. We rely on soil microbes to "Nutrient Cycle", or break down the organic matter and soil amendments/fertilizers we add to the soil before it can be used by our plants as food. A healthy soil that is full of life is truly a magical thing! This said, we need to make sure that we have plenty of this microscopic life in our soil. The ProMix/Sunshine Mix/Sphagnum Peat has very small amounts and is really more of an "inert" medium. To get the party started we use either worm castings or compost, both of which are loaded with billions and billions of soil microbes. I prefer to use both items in my own soil.

Aeration.
This is a fairly simple thing. We want our soil to be loose and crumbly. We dont want it to stick together and be heavy and wet. We want it to stay moist, ideally, but to drain well. To make sure that we end up with these qualities we should add an aeration amendment. This can be anything from perlite, or rice hulls, small chunks of lava rock or buckwheat hulls. I personally use buckwheat hulls and love it in my soil.

Nutrition.
This is a wide subject - plant nutrition. So far we have a good base soil, but to that we need to add organic soil amendments that can be broken down by our soil microbes into their base elements so that it can be in a form that can be utilized by our plants. There are many, many options for this, here are just a few of my own personal favorites -

Kelp Meal - I personally wont garden without it! Kelp meal is loaded with a wide variety of both Macro and Micro Nutrients. Theres much more to kelp meal but for the sake of keeping this basic we can get into more on the benefits of kelp meal another time.

Alfalfa Meal - Alfalfa provides many nutritional benefits not only for plant use, but for soil organisms as well. One very important ingredient is tricontanol, a powerful plant growth regulator. (PGR's)
Alfalfa is very high in vitamins, plus N-P-K-Ca, Mg, and other valuable minerals. It also includes sugars, starches, proteins, fiber and 16 amino acids. Approximate analysis is 3-1-2.

Neem Cake - (Wonderful stuff! We need to get into Neem more later, it is worthy of its own discussion)
Fish Meal
Fish Bone Meal
Bone Meal
Blood Meal - (Yuck)
Comfrey
Manures - Chicken, Cow, etc. etc.
Rock Dusts/Flours

Anyhow, there are many, many assorted "nutritional soil amendments". For the sake, again, of keeping this basic, lets just go with a "Blended organic fertilizer". You can find these right at Paris Farmers Union - Epsoma Organic Garden Tone, Tomato Tone, or Bio Tone are just some examples.

Now for the ratios/recipe itself. Remeber, these are approximate numbers - no two soil mixes are alike and it isnt rocket science - its no big deal if you're off a little bit.

50% Sphagnum Peat or Pro Mix or Sunshine Mix
30% to 35% Compost, or Worm Casting, or a mix of both
15% to 20% Aeration

To this add, for every Cubic Foot, or 7.5 gallons, a half to one cup of a "liming agent". This should be Calcite Lime, Oyster Shell Flour or Crab/Shrimp?Lobster Meal (Calcium Carbonate) to raise the pH of the acidic peat.

To this add, again, for every Cubic Foot (or 7.5 gallons) a TOTAL of 2-3 cups of nutritional organic fertilizer. This can be a blended product like the Epsoma, or a combination of assorted organic fertilizers of your choice. Remeber, this is not each, but a total amount per CF. Diversity is a good thing when selecting organic fertilizers. As our plants grow through the varying stages of their life, both they (the plants) and the soil microbes will help decide what the plants need for nutrition, and when it needs it, so making sure that a good variety is available is a very good thing.

Ok! We have mixed up all these ingredients, now we need to wet them thoroughly. Soak it right down, but not to the point of being muddy - just make sure that its thoroughly wetted down.

Now this mix needs to nutrient cycle - some folks will say that the soil needs to "cook", but I dont like that term. The microbes need to take the time to break down the organic matter and fertilizer, and the pH needs to stabilize, so give yourself a good month before use. If you use this right away, there is a chance of burning your plants from the fresh fertilizers. Let it break down.

This is a fantastic mix, one that can be used over and over again - dont ever throw it away! It can definetly be recycled and slightly reamended as needed. The growth that you will get with a good organic potting soil or vegetable soil can be nothing short of miraculous!

This is just a basic mix - but Id love to get further into more intricate mixes with y'all later, and what each available soil amendment and fertilizer might be good for - different plants like different things.

More to come - I sincerely hope some of you may benefit from this.

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls, Maine

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03 Feb 2013 07:40 AM  
Even though its cold and freezing out right now, it's really the perfect time to get started on constructing your soils. Soil needs time to nutrient cycle - to break down organic fertilizers into usable plant food. Just think folks, in 4 weeks it'll be March!

Come on folks - isnt this the organic soil forum? Lets get this discussion started! What methods are you using now? What can you do to better your gardens?

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
Manny GimondUser is Offline
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03 Feb 2013 10:27 AM  
Thanks for bringing up this important topic Mark. It pains me to see vast expanses of open fields relegated to monoculture. I often witness this when driving past fields in my area whose corn stalk remnants are protruding the ridges of clay soil completely devoid of any organic matter (most of the stalk, along with the corn, are ground up on site for use as feed at a local industrial dairy farm). This could have been a scene taken straight out of some apocalyptic movie. The only life form these soils see are corn plants for about 4 months out of the year. This is common practice across the industrial world, and for many farmers the only way known. Transitioning from a lifeless soil back to a living organism requires perseverance and time. Organic matter can easily be washed away in runoff, or even baked away under a scorching sun, but reconstituting it takes patience and may require that sections of land be placed “out of commission” for a while. This is not what many conventional farmers like to hear. Market forces makes this challenging.

I have about 7 acres of established hay field that has remained as such for many decades--possibly more than a century(?). It’s in better shape than the neighboring corn fields, but once you get past the thatch, you’ll be hard pressed to find any macro-invertebrates in the underlying clay soil... not the poster child of a healthy soil IMO. I’m having success re-introducing some organic matter into small plots I’ve been experimenting with. Primary sources being grain cover crops (oats, buckwheat) and leaf matter. Clay soil can be very unforgiving. The grains have a very difficult time germinating unless the soil has been mechanically loosened. Once the plants are established, it doesn’t take long for the soil around the plants to re-compact (despite establishing a very thick patch of cover crops) thus making it difficult to inter-seed with a fall cover crop. This past year, I decided to till under the spring cover crop in August, then plant a fall crop of oats shortly thereafter (this is not my preferred choice since it exposes the soil to the hot august sun for several weeks). I then chose to let the hens loose on the oat plot in October; they did a remarkably nice job breaking the straw down and working some of the straw into the soil (albeit no deeper than an inch or two) before the winter freeze.

My experimental plots are showing some signs of soil life (at the macroinvertebrate level at least). The worms, I find, are remarkable tunnelers, often finding their way deep into the clay soil (6” to “8 sometimes) where a full body bounce on a shovel is required to dig down to. But the build-up of humus is proving to be a slow process. Farming not being my bread and butter affords me the time and mistakes that go along with experimentation. I prefer this approach to soil building over the use of external inputs. But if I was impatient (or if minimizing “out of production” time was paramount) I would seriously look into ramial wood chips. For all you francophones out there, I recommend [url=http://fermedupouzat.free.fr/]Jacky Duperty’s book “BRF vous connaissez ?”[/url] It’s a very nice resource on the ‘humusification’ of soil using ramial wood chips. In fact, if you want to see this technique in use locally, you need look no further than [url=http://snakeroot.net/farm/InPraiseOfChips.shtml]Snakeroot farm[/url] in Pittsfield where Tom seems to have had good success with ramial chips.
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03 Feb 2013 10:46 AM  
Manny - it's nice to "meet you"; thank you for the response.

We are in the same boat here. The one single horse of my wife's has nibbled it's way down to nothing. Before we bought the small "farm" 8 years ago chemical fertilizers had been used and the soil (sand) is completely devoid of organic matter. The ONLY way to correct this is to slowly add as much OM back as I can every year.

You're so right - it is a hard process! It's hard to even come up with as much OM as I need. I think that this spring I am going to need to divide the acres up and work on different areas. If I continue the way I am, with the animal(s) eating everything in sight I'll never get it where I want; where it needs to be.

I make as much compost as I can. The one horse helps more than she knows - between the stall manure and bedding (wood shavings) it does add up. Leaves collected add to the heaps and I do what I can.

I AM concentrating on the veggie garden area too, adding lots and lots of compost and general hay, manure and shavings as I can. I WILL get there someday! No matter what though, chemicals are NOT the answer. If fertilizers must be used, use organic! Alfalfa, kelp, blended organic ferts are so much better than salt based chemicals. First things first, though, and like you said, it's the OM that must be added back as a base.

In the meantime I will count on my veggie garden(s) and raised beds. I can really concentrate on these areas and slowly get the fields back by adding assorted OM as I can.

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
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04 Feb 2013 10:02 AM  
ROCK DUST -

Ive discussed this topic with many gardeners, and it has been the general concensus that many other gardeners need to know about it. It is an amazing subject, one that I have been and still am studying. I do not claim to be any kind of an expert on this subject, (at all), but I've been working on this with a friend who does know quite a bit about it and so have learned at least some basics.

Rock dust! Simple, powdered, shattered, ground, screened rock!

First, let me quote from something that we were discussing regarding soil - The real question here is WHY are these dusts so important?

I'm going to quote my friend here:

"Soil: rotted plant and/or animal materials with shattered rock. Here again we can see how basic plants are to the development of this planet. It is algae (the most basic plant) that over the eons pulled thin shattered layers away from the rocks leading to the development of what would become 'soil' - that is soil at its basic definition. Sticks, rocks, etc. would be considered 'amendments' by gardeners or something close.

Minerals: while this is completely inaccurate from the perspective of a geologist or even a botanist, I'll use the layman's definition of a mineral as an Element that can be derived from a mined material, i.e. shattered rock


So, now that we have a basic definition of "soil" out of the way, to those that do not have rock dust in thier soil mix, by rights, this soil is incomplete. We need the rock dust in our soil mix to make it complete. I'm talking about actual rock dust here; ie: granite meal, glacial rock dust, basalt dust, et al. I'm not talking about rock phosphate or clays (this is for a different post) - I'm just talking about simple, ground rock dust.

The real question here is WHY are these dusts so important? Again, I'm going to quote my friend here:

Contrary to the misinformation passed around assorted garden forums (of all stripes), there are not 12 'things' that plants need. That was the theory behind Liebig's Law of the Minimum. Liebig was the chemist (not botanist) who dropped the NPK bomb on the world in the 1840's in Germany. The book 'Bread From Stones' was written shortly thereafter that refuted Liebig's theory (which were based on Carl Sprengel's work). "Bread From Stones" is available online for free - a must have for a guy like you, i.e. serious organic gardener.

The fact of the matter is that there aren't 12 Elements needed but rather 83. Keep that number in mind as you look at plant materials that you might consider using. All plants accumulate these 83 Elements and some plants that do a better job are called 'healthy' by nutritionists and we refer to them as 'bio-nutrient accumulators' and in the dietary world Kale is a better accumulator than Iceberg lettuce so we use terms like 'more nutritious' or 'healthier' - that's from the Elements that are accumulated - Phosphorus, Calcium, Potassium, etc. In the sustainable/organic gardening and agricultural paradigm, we call Comfrey, Kelp, Alfalfa, et al. nutrient accumulators. Same Elements but different terms for the same thing.

In a soil shattered rock (rock dust) provide a number of things: 'anchors' for many fungi strains. While it is true that endo & ecto mycorrhizal strains 'bore into the roots' like a corkscrew that is not the case with the majority of fungi in a soil. Even in the brewing of an AACT people who know what they're doing (like Microbeman) add small amounts of some kind of rock dust not to enhance the 'mineral level' in the brew but to provide an anchor for the fungi to attach to and then extend their length.

Another benefit that rock dusts provide is structure in the soil which equates to aeration paths. Paths for not only air but water to move freely in the rhizosphere.


So, now we know that rock dusts provide several benefits, first, "mineralization", and also pathways for air and water, and most importantly, anchors for bacteria/soil life to latch onto in our soil.

After much reading and discussions, the REAL BENEFIT comes from ENZYMES. Once the bacteria has latched onto and anchored to the rock dust, they produce enzymes. This is how bacteria break down organic matter. While there are many different types of enzymes, (different types of enzymes are created dependent on thier "host") one of the most important things that happens due to these enzymes in our soil is Nutrient Cycling. Bacteria do not "eat" organic matter - they utilize these enzymes to break down the organic matter for them. They excrete enzymes thru thier bodies. By having the rock dust in our soil, we have created many places for bacteria to latch onto, more enzymes are created, by more enzymes being created, more nutrient cycling happens, by more nutrient cycling happening, more organic matter is broken down into usable plant food!

Pretty slick, isn't it!

Again, by my friend - he has taught me a lot, and it's cool to be able to pass this on -

But here is where the greatest benefit lies (IMHO) and that is the enzymes created by bacteria (primarily) that surround these pieces of rock. It will take many, many years for this material to breakdown. Years. But the microbial activity creates enzymes and enzymes are a key component in the nutrient cycling by plant roots from other microbial activity.

Chitin is a perfect example of what I'm trying to explain. Chitin in and of itself does not kill a single insect. It's the enzyme that is created by bacteria called Chinease and it's this enzyme that softens insect eggs preventing them from hatching. Chitin is also a key component in fungi as it forms much of the outer layer. But again, it's the enzyme from bacterial activity that is the real goal here.

But let's get back to 'mineralization' again. Last winter, Acres USA Magazine had an article that featured 6 leading experts on soil from leading universities and research centers. Each individual wrote a piece which was part of this anthology. Down to each and every scientist it was agreed that complete mineralization could be easily accomplished by using kelp meal. The problem is that the recommend amount of kelp per acre is 200 lbs. That's a lot of money - imagine amending 200 acres which is a pretty small farm.

But in the world of organic farmers, Alfalfa is often referred to as 'field kelp' because like kelp, Alfalfa accumulates all of the 83 Elements needed for planting health and costs 25% of what kelp costs. Comfrey, Stinging Nettle, et al. will provide a farmer or gardner each and every Element (even NPK!!! Yay! LOL)

So rock dusts, particularly in an artificial soil like we make up even as good as it is) will do very, very little as far as 'feeding' a plant. Very little. But the benefit comes indirectly, i.e. by having these anchors in the soil the fungi increase in size (length) meaning that they can reach more hidden 'sequestered nutrients' from bacteria exudes, etc. so in that sense the rock dusts do increase plant growth, health, etc.

Think about it logically - if soil rock pieces could degrade in a 3 or 4 month trip through our indoor gardens the imagine what would have happened out in the real world - the human race and all plants and animals would have died out in the first million years of their origin.


I'm going to end this first post by putting some links to read here. This is a fascinating subject that deserves discussion here in the MOFGA Soil forum.

http://remineralize.org/a-rock-dust-primer

http://www.paramountgrowth.com/images/rockdust_sdiver01.pdf

http://infiniteplaythemovie.com/rock_dust_remineralization.htm

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls













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04 Feb 2013 10:04 AM  
Regarding the importance of soil enzymes:

Cite: http://soilquality.org/indicators/soil_enzymes.html

What it is: Soil enzymes increase the reaction rate at which plant residues decompose and release plant available nutrients. The substance acted upon by a soil enzyme is called the substrate. For example, glucosidase (soil enzyme) cleaves glucose from glucoside (substrate), a compound common in plants. Enzymes are specific to a substrate and have active sites that bind with the substrate to form a temporary complex. The enzymatic reaction releases a product, which can be a nutrient contained in the substrate.

Sources of soil enzymes include living and dead microbes, plant roots and residues, and soil animals. Enzymes
stabilized in the soil matrix accumulate or form complexes with organic matter (humus), clay, and humus-clay
complexes, but are no longer associated with viable cells. It is thought that 40 to 60% of enzyme activity can come from stabilized enzymes, so activity does not necessarily correlate highly with microbial biomass or respiration. Therefore, enzyme activity is the cumulative effect of long term microbial activity and activity of the viable population at sampling. However, an example of an enzyme that only reflects activity of viable cells is
dehydrogenase, which in theory can only occur in viable cells and not in stabilized soil complexes.

Why it is important: Enzymes respond to soil management changes long before other soil quality indicator changes are detectable. Soil enzymes play an important role in organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling (see table 1). Some enzymes only facilitate the breakdown of organic matter (e.g., hydrolase, glucosidase), while others are involved in nutrient mineralization (e.g., amidase, urease, phosphatase, sulfates). With the exception of phosphatase activity, there is no strong evidence that directly relates enzyme activity to nutrient availability or crop production. The relationship may be indirect considering nutrient mineralization to plant available forms is accomplished with the contribution of enzyme activity.


Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
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04 Feb 2013 10:13 AM  
Organic gardening is ALL about mineralization. I dont mean anything to do with "rocks & minerals", per se, Im referring to "the transformation of organic molecules to inorganic forms, typically mediated by biological activity'.

This is Nutrient Cycling - the breaking down of organic matter; our compost, our peat, our amendments - all of it, through enzymes which are secreted/excreted by bacteria & fungus. These enzymes are used outside of the bacteria - its called "extra-cellular", as it is outside of the cell walls of the bacteria. Larger animals, like earthworms, use enzymes INSIDE thier bodies to break down organic matter.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ ~~~~

This is an excellent explanation from the University of Western Australia - http://www.soilhealth.see.uwa.edu.au/processes/breakdown

It is definetly worth reading. These are the first two paragraphs -

Organic Matter Breakdown: Releasing Nutrients for Uptake
How is organic matter broken down in the soil?


Organic matter break down is a biological process because it is the soil organisms (microorganisms, earthworms, microarthropods, ants, beetles etc) that perform the chemical and physical transformations. Break down of organic matter involves physical fragmentation, chemical alteration of organic matter and finally release of mineral nutrients. (Mineralization!) Different organisms are involved with the different stages of the decomposition.

Leaf and root systems are naturally colonised by microorganisms. Break down starts almost immediately after the organism, or part of it, dies. These colonies of microorganisms use enzymes to oxidise the organic matter to obtain energy and carbon (C). Earthworms and other larger soil animals, such as mites, collembola (springtails), and ants assist in the decomposition of organic matter by incorporating it into the sub-surface soil, where conditions are usually more favourable for decomposition than on the soil surface. The soil animals fragment the organic material, which increases its surface area and allows it to be further colonised and decomposed by microorganisms.


Can plants immediately take up nutrients released from decomposition?

Mineralisation is the biological process in which organic compounds are chemically converted to other simpler organic compounds or inorganic forms, such as ammonium or phosphate, by soil microorganisms. When microorganisms mineralise a protein molecule, for example, the molecule may undergo several changes to simpler organic molecules before the carbon is converted to carbon dioxide and the nitrogen, phosphorus and sulphur become readily available to plants as ammonium (NH4+), phosphate (PO43-) and sulphate (SO42-).

Bacteria and fungi are responsible for most of the mineralisation of organic matter in soil by releasing enzymes that oxidise organic compounds. This process releases energy and carbon, some of which is used by the microbes for constructing cellular components such as cell walls and membranes.


The rest can be read on the website cited above. This is a good explanantion of how organic matter is broken down to become available for use by plants - through enzymes. Rock dust inadvertantly helps create large amounts of enzymes by creating anchors for soil bacteria.

Isnt this SO cool! Its all good knowing how to make an organic soil mix that works, its another thing entirely knowing the HOW's and WHY's of how it works! Plants cannot use any of our soil mix until it is broken down into its elemental form through mineralization. Once items get broken down by enzymes into its most simple, basic form, then these items can be used as plant food. By having alot of organic goodness broken down and ready to use as plant food, our plants are able to get whatever they want, whenever they (or our soil microbes) need it, resulting in extremely healthy, lush plant growth.

More to come.

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
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07 Feb 2013 08:48 PM  
These are great bits of information Mark. I’m sure that a lot of time must have gone into summarizing these invaluable points. Thanks!

One overarching theme here is the importance of a diversified soil ecosystem, this in conjunction with an above ground diversified landscape as advocated by many polyculturalists and permaculturalists. I make a point to throw twigs, bark, rocks in my beds (up to a size my tiller will accommodate, but probably larger than most farmer is willing to tolerate) not because of a priori knowledge on their benefits at the microscale level but more so because of the belief that a diversified system produces a resilient environment. I’m sure that this was an intuition deeply rooted in the pre-industrial era farmer!
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08 Feb 2013 07:10 AM  
Manny - thank you. Organic soil is a real passion of mine - like the thread title says; the "Hows and Whys" of what makes it all work, and work well. Under the right circumstances, the right conditions, the proper levels of soil life, sufficient food, it is absolutely crazy how huge and healthy plants will grow, and I study, as a hobby, what makes it work like it does.

I heartily agree with you as to the importance of diversity. the need to ensure that whatever our plants and our soil microbes need at a certain time is there and available when they go looking for it. I am not a guy that feels the need to add certain, specific elements/minerals to a soil; Im a guy that needs to make sure that there is a balanced nutrition in the soil - a little bit of everything. Many folks feel the need to add high levels of nitrogen, or phosphorous, as examples, but I dont agree. I believe we need to add a little bit of everything, as each is as important as the next in maintaining a healthy soil environment. IF we can maintain that diversity - that complete mineralization, then our work is about done. From there we can leave it up to both the plants and the soil microbes to take what they need and when they need it. Diversity & Availability.

Id really like to see more folks get involved in this discussion. I know for a fact that there are plenty of you out there who garden, whether its flowers or vegetables and apply organic principles to your gardens - there have been plenty of "views" to this thread, but only a couple of replies, so please, jump on into the discussion! What are your methods? What gives you the most success? What would you like to see different in your gardens? Are you having issues that you'd like to see corrected to get the most out of the gardens that you have?

My next topic will be on making your own fertilizers out of assorted plants called "Dynamic Accumulators". When I get a chance in a little bit I'll get on it.

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
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18 Feb 2013 10:28 AM  
So we know that soil microbes break down organic matter into organic compounds and basic elemental forms, which can then be used by living plants as plant food - the basic cycle of life. As living plants die they break down and end up feeding other living plants.

There are 83 elements that are integral to growing plants. All plants accumulate these 83 elements in their bodies; ie: stalks, leaves, etc. Some plants do a better job than others in storing these elements and some do a great job in storing certain elements - we call these plants "Dynamic Accumulators, or Bio-Nutrient Accumulators". http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_accumulator

By using these plants we can make our own organic fertilizers and utilize the elements that these "Accumulators" have stored in their bodies. We can actually get specific and utilize specific plants to make fertilizers that are richer in certain elements than others. For instance, we can make a fertilizer from Buckwheat if we are looking to raise Phosphorous levels, Alfalfa or Neem for a high Nitrogen fertilizer or Horsetail Ferns for a Silica rich fertilizer - the possibilities truly are endless.

Ive compiled a basic list of some webpages that show which plants store which elements best, take a look below:

http://oregonbd.org/Class/accum.htm

http://www.ibiblio.org/london/permaculture/mailarchives/permaculture-UNC/msg00083.html

http://oregonbd.org/Class/accum.htm

http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.com/2012/01/dynamic-accumulators.html

These are just some examples of different elements that can be accumulated by specific plants. These can be added to your compost heaps, added to your worm bins or teas can be made by simply soaking these plants in water for anywhere from a few days to a month. As these plants break down the elements are released and you will now have a nutrient rich homemade fertilizer! The lowly Dandelion is an excellent example of a Dynamic Accumulator that can be easily transformed into a rich fertilizer. I grow Comfrey at home as well and make both simple soaked teas with it, I layer it into soil mixes, add it to my worm bins and make concentrated comfrey syrup which is very easy to make as well. There are many acccumulators that can be wild foraged too, so take a look at some of these lists, see whats in your own neighborhood and start collecting these very valuable & nutrient rich plants!

My friend put this very simply and I really liked his comment about Dynamic Accumulator plants -

Plants Growing Plants

Have a good day folks - Spring is right around the corner!

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
Manny GimondUser is Offline
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Manny Gimond

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18 Feb 2013 07:07 PM  
I will second many of the cover crops suggested. Comfrey is easy to propagate (some say too easy) and can provide two to three cuttings a year based on my experience. It’s also a great insectary providing nectar for bees and shelter for many beneficial predatory insects. Dandelions do surprisingly well in my clayey soil where they manage to penetrate through some of the toughest hardpan.

“Plants growing plants” is a great quote, Mark. I also allow many common “weeds” to grow into many of my garden beds. Starting two years ago, I’ve let lamb’s quarter flourish in my corn plots (this after having given the corn a head start, of course). This might make for an unsightly partnership of plants, but I have not observed any detrimental effects on corn harvest. In fact, I have increased my corn harvest by a modest amount over those two years (admittedly this could be due to other factors). But the point remains that no negative impact on corn yield was observed yet the benefits of this partnership are many:

- additional buildup of organic matter and nutrient extraction (which is released at the end of the season)
- minimization of soil compaction when harvesting the corn (the lamb’s quarter serves as a ground “mat” as I work down the rows harvesting my corn).
- Lamb’s quarter is surprisingly nutritious, much more so than spinach. In fact I substitute spinach for lambs quarters in my cooking (my favorite being sauteing this weed with onions, olive oil and a little soy sauce)
- I also think that the dense cover of lamb’s quarters may have some water retention benefits during the hot summer months. My guess is that the plants help collect the morning dew and preserve this moisture under its canopy from the intense August sun. Maybe the stomata close up when it’s too hot thus minimizing transpiration?
- Less labor!! (need I say more)

This experiment was inspired by Joseph A. Cocannouer’s Weeds: Guardians of the Soil. The book is out of print, but a simple google search will return many links to online versions. This is a great read that I strongly recommend.
Mark DrummondUser is Offline
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Mark Drummond

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23 Feb 2013 08:33 AM  
Soil Biology Primer - this is a nice read regarding the basics of understanding how an organic soil works.

http://soils.usda.gov/sqi/concepts/soil_biology/soil_food_web.html

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
lizberksUser is Offline
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17 Mar 2013 04:52 PM  
Thank you for the useful information. Up until now, I have been a hazard to any green and growing plant but am committed to learning how to garden successfully, this recipe seems doable, I have bags of Coast of Maine compost from last year, does it have a shelf life?
Mark DrummondUser is Offline
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Mark Drummond

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17 Mar 2013 07:05 PM  
Liz, thanks for the interest and responding - I'm trying to get some folks interested in some organic gardening dialogue and not having alot of luck - besides Manny lol

Anyhow - no, compost really does not have a "shelf life" - it should be good for years. Once compost has gone through its thermophylic stage of heating up it settles down and stabilizes nicely. It takes many, many years before the soil microbes have had a chance to eat everything up at which it becomes humus , but that is for another conversation.

The Coast of Maine products are top shelf! I consider us very lucky to have such a superb company here in Maine - I simply can't say enough good stuff about them. The "lobster compost" you have is just SO good. The lobster shells are a rich source of calcium and is almost pure calcium carbonate which works as an excellent pH buffer. Lobster, crab and shrimp shells also contain a protein called Chitin , which helps to strengthen cell walls, pest control and is an excellent microbe food source.

So you do have a very good bagged compost - let me know if you would like some help with the soil mix recipe. It's important to remember to allow your soil to nutrient cycle for around a month before use to avoid any "burning" of your plants.

It's almost spring!

Mark Drummond
Livermore Falls
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