“The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.” ~ Hubert H. Humphrey
Nearly two years ago, I was approached with how to start up an elementary school garden. All the necessary tools were already in place — spade, shovel, rake, raised bed boxes, picnic tables. The teachers and students were enthusiastic. But there was one crucial thing missing from the garden soil: life.
Starting something from ‘dead’ may seem like a daunting task. The soil had been ignored and compacted, swinging between being beaten by rain or burned by the sun. Nothing outside of grasses were green, not a single earthworm wriggled out of the first shovelful of soil. It was dead, dirt.
I knew what it would take to bring soil back to life. Some might choose to visit the garden store with a big budget, or stock up on fancy fertilizers and chipped mulch, but I already had plenty of organics on hand for my own garden, hand-picked from curbs. My wall of bags was long and high! A few deliveries of these inputs in the van — leaves, grocery store produce waste, cardboard, and home compost — would be all that’s needed.
‘How long will it take before we can plant seeds? Weeks? Months?’ the teacher fretted. She was hopeful yet realistic with this challenge. After all, we were already at the middle of the school year, and only four months away from summer break.
‘Trust me. Trust in organics.’ She would have to see it to believe it.
A First Look — Feb ’17
Dead Soil, Amendments Staged
Only a few hours of digging was required to get the beds ready; in-ground lasagna layers are easy to build once all the materials were on-site. I’ve done this more than a few times before!
‘We can plant straight away.‘ I told the teacher, ‘as the soil is put right back on top, ready for seeds. The organic layers just underneath the surface will both break down and provide nutrients and water to plants, just as the roots are needing them to grow. The Soil Food Web does all the behind-the-scenes work.’
Confident in my physical abilities, I was also stepping out of my comfort zone. This was the first project of its kind for me, with only the knowledge of a few year’s in my own garden to call upon, counting on all the instances I’d failed only to have Nature put me right again. I may not have fully understood why what I was doing worked, but I was certain it did work.
I began educating children on the ways of soil. Soil is the very foundation for everything else that grows from it, and it is just as easy to repair as it is to destroy. The difference between life or death of soil is understanding how it works.
Layering Lasagna Style — Feb ’17
Soil On Top of Compost
Gridded and Ready For Planting Seeds
Happy, Dirty Kids After Planting — Mar ’17
First Edibles — Mar ’17
Root Harvest — April ’17
I have always been a believer in the productivity of healthy soil, a Soil Evangelist. Now that teachers, administration and students were believers too, the school garden ‘pilot program’ would continue into the next school year.
And like the carrots and leafy greens harvested, it too would grow and thrive.
Summer arrived as it usually does, and the garden boxes would be untended for several months, with gates locked and weeds and grasses ignored. In planting zones to the north, gardeners winterize their gardens; that is, they prepare the ground for weeks when nothing will be growing in the ever-present snow and ice. Down here in Zone 9B, I thought it better to ‘summer-ize’ the school gardens instead. It would be important to keep out invasive grasses and discourage weed seeds so we’re not adding unnecessary work in the future.
Once again, free organics came to the rescue. In the course of a week, all ten beds were ready for planting again for the beginning of the fall school session. Grasses which grew wildly stayed out of the protected soil, and the underworld of soil beings — the real reason why organics work so well — continued their work to keep soil alive. And soil is alive!
When an unscheduled hurricane made landfall resulting in epic area flooding, closing schools for weeks, we (people) were set back in our plans. But soil in the gardens never missed a beat. They were ready for planting seeds, like nothing had happened.
Square Foot Plots — Oct ’17
Ready For Seeds!
4th Grade (Late) Planting — Nov ’17
Garden Beds Bursting — Feb ’18
While waiting for seeds to turn into edibles, I ran across an interesting article: Do Plants and Soil Really Talk? The hundreds of millions years old symbiotic relationship between trees and fungi has a name, and I’m certain now it’s this symbiosis that has been making the school garden so successful. Mycorrhizae doesn’t just work for trees; it works for garden plants as well. In fact, some 90% of all plants have evolved alongside a mycorrhizal fungi.
I was intrigued. Is this what I had been encouraging with my style of gardening? Let’s count the ways:
- Light aeration of the soil provides pathways that oxygen-loving creatures (fungi) can travel; over-working or tilling the soil destroys the fungal mat.
- Adding organic matter (waste) feeds the world of soil microbes.
- Inoculating dead soil with living soil (from my own garden), jump-starts the process.
- Companion- and stagger-planting in square plots lessens disease and insect problems and grows stronger plants.
- Mulching with leaves (more organics) both feeds the soil and conserves moisture.
- Not watering intensively with chlorinated water prevents salts build-up in the soil, which chases away aerators (earthworms).
- Building compost piles in between 4×4 sections provides everything a plant needs — right next door!
- Piling unused cardboard nearby provides habitat for fungi and other soil decomposers.
Okra Flowering — Aug ’18
Produced all summer with no inputs.
Okra Still Producing — Oct ’17
Center Compost Decomposing
Much like the apple tree does, the body of a fungus — mycelium — fruits to reproduce itself. These are the mushrooms we see sprouting on top of the compost pile, the tip of the proverbial iceberg. It’s easy to forget what we don’t see, the gigantic organism underneath our feet making life happen. Fungi is like a super-highway of water and nutrients moving one way to plants, with sugars coming back to feed the fungi. They help each other.
Stewarding the soil goes beyond all that. In placing organics right next to (or even underneath) where seeds will be planted, we are unwittingly promoting Nature’s oldest friendships.
4th Generation Monarch — Oct’ 18
Planting Seeds — Nov ’18
4×4 Garden (Left)
Center Compost (Right) — Nov ’18
When you go the way of nature rather than against it, all the hard work you normally associate with gardening goes by the wayside, and the joys of puttering in the garden fully takes hold. If our world is going to survive us, provide for us, continue to thrive with us, re-purposing waste streams and building friendships — soil friendships, garden friendships — is what we need.
~ Shannon @ DirtNKids Blog