Back to the Garden
by Gary Kline
Calling upon my 72 years of observations in and about the world, and reflecting on my extensive reading, research and contemplation, I have come to the firm conclusion that there is one highly effective thing we can do to redress the multiple ills and wounds our species has inflicted upon the Earth and upon ourselves. We’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden!
Back in the Sixties, there was a popular counter-culture song, I believe sung by Joni Mitchell, with that “back to the garden” lyric, poignant with meaning (for those who truly heard it). Garden, in this case, referred to Eden or to our lost paradise. The universal transforming remedy of which I speak is not a simple, naïve call to increase beauty and bounty; although that would be a welcome consequence.
I’m talking about something deeper, more practical and effective that would be world-changing and planet- restoring. It addresses the underlying concern and problem of the tragic and deteriorating condition of our soils, upon which gardening and farming are principally reliant, and the fate of every civilization is dependent. We don’t need to stand by and watch this deterioration reach the state of complete ruin. I have an action plan for rebuilding and restoring the health of our soils, our people and our planet.
This plan actually consists of a number of elements in combination, and it goes far beyond the mere expansion of conventional organiculture as our savior; it puts teeth in all the fantasy talk about sustainability. Actual sustainability is not possible if we do not restore, protect and maintain our soils.
What many people don’t realize is the massive loss of soil which has occurred over the centuries in numerous places around the world, leading, in many cases, to the demise of whole civilizations. Erosion, but also fertility depletion, has occurred extensively and repeatedly, often out of ignorance, but just as often out of greed and indifference, and certainly short-sightedness.
Invariably, the extent of erosion and depletion’s contribution to the decline of empires and whole countries has been greatly underestimated or disregarded among the factors thought to be responsible. In part, this is because the erosion often has proceeded almost imperceptibly. But in other cases it has been catastrophic and obvious, yet it continued unabated, just as if there was no understanding of what was happening or how drastic its effects would shortly be, on top of what they had already been.
Over and over, the pattern has been repeated of settling in valleys, farming the bottom lands until population growth forced farmers to deforest hillsides and plow up the slopes (often up and down rather than across them). This led to burial of bottomlands under silt and rubble, the clogging of rivers and harbors to the point that port cities often wound up stranded several miles inland from where ships once anchored. Then the people either had to move away or went into decline and sometimes simply starved out.
Sometimes the soils recovered enough that farming could partially recover and populations build back again, only to see them plummet all over again, as if nothing was learned. The accumulation of these calamities has been appalling and is depressing to read about. You can get the drift of it in reading David Montgomery’s Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007, 2008 and 2010). Or, you could read a much shorter account in the still startling booklet Conquest of the Land Through 7,000 Years (1953), by W. C. Lowdermilk.
Here’s an example: Greece. At one time Greece was the most powerful country in the world and conquered many others, all the way over to Egypt - - - because it almost had to in order to feed its own people as a consequence of ignorantly destroying its farmlands. The damage was so severe that Greece’s agriculture will likely never recover, and Greece can never again be a major power or advanced economy.
But don’t think it has just happened elsewhere. Few Americans have any inkling of how severe erosion was in our brief history, and nutrient depletion continues to be in accelerating fashion today. Just one example is the pre-Civil War South, where the clearing and plowing up of lands to grow tobacco and cotton caused clear rivers to turn brown, literally exhausting the soils and causing wholesale movement west from the Atlantic coast to beyond the Mississippi. This led to plantation ownership, the economic necessity of slave labor, the impoverishment of the general citizenry, all leading to the barely acknowledged major cause of the Civil War. The whole “Go west, young man” movement and the land rush into the west was not just an attraction preference, it was a necessity created by the rapid exhaustion of eastern soils.
Then, need I mention the 1930’s Dust Bowl disaster? Much of the damming and flood control diking of the Mississippi drainage basin can be attributed to heedless erosion, but also to the modern chemical agriculture the nation has endured since essentially the end of World War II. The ramifications of that misguided system have been enormous and insidious, leading to the pervasive malnutrition and widescale degenerative diseases now plaguing America. It is not widely recognized that soil is slowly built from the bottom (at bedrock) up (to the surface), but also from the top down, in essence, thanks to the work of earthworms. A certain amount of slow, natural erosion is necessary to that process.
Millions of acres worldwide have been degraded or ruined, seemingly beyond hope of restoration. But that isn’t necessarily so. The deterioration of these formerly arable soils ranges from moderate to severe. Where erosion has worn down to bedrock, probably nothing can be done, but that still leaves a lot that is recoverable by a combination of techniques and certain materials that I believe makes the creation of new topsoil achievable. There is reason to be optimistic about the possibilities for rebuilding small and also vast areas that have seemed lost to agricultural productivity and to enhanced fertility. We just need to get real.
The restoration resurrection I have in mind needs to involve both individual projects and government programs directed at the right means and methods, and the abandonment of currently wrong approaches and programs. It involves formerly workable approaches and principles given up when synthetic (chemical) fertilizers and poisonous pesticides came along like pied pipers that led us astray. Actually, convenience did this to us. In the 1920’s, ‘30’s and ‘40’s an incredible amount of knowledge was developing on how to farm in cooperation with nature. We need to pick up from there and add modern knowledge that continues in that vein.
I don’t claim to have all the pieces, but I’ll lay out some that surely will go into creation of the picture of realistic sustainability, leading into environmental or ecological and economic stability over the very long haul. Clearly, to accomplish this on a large and long scale will require abundant sources of materials.
First would be biochar, made from logging debris, scrap lumber and other forms of woody organic matter. A big side benefit of making and using biochar is that the resultant stable carbon constitutes a carbon sequestration, aiding in the reversal of global warming. A third of that problem is due to mechanized chemical agriculture. If you know the Terra Preta story, you know what a tremendous leap this would mean for the sequestering of fertilizing nutrients and moisture (remaining accessible to plant and crop roots) lasting for decades and maybe centuries. The replacement of nutrients lost to leaching and crop removal could be reduced dramatically, while soil fertility and productivity gains immensely.
Secondly, comes the application of sea minerals, returning to the land all the planet’s array of trace element nutrients so greatly lacking in large measure due to decades of unbalanced and unwise NPK fertilization.
For all practical purposes, the oceans are the planet’s largest resource, carrying a nearly inexhaustible supply of nutrient minerals that require very little environmental disturbance and comparatively low cost transportation for bringing back full and balanced fertility to our depleted and degraded soils. The very best product currently available for that purpose is Sea-Crop, manufactured near Raymond, Washington. You can read about this in Seawater Concentrate for Abundant Agriculture (2012), by Arthur Zeigler. One of the ways to administer Sea-Crop to our sick soils is by soaking biochar with a diluted solution, which also serves to charge the biochar so it doesn’t cause an initial sponging-up of the latent soil nutrients when worked into the soil.
Organic matter of all kinds and various forms needs to go into the ground to achieve the Terra Preta effect. In addition to plant debris, animal carcasses, bones, manures, etc., compost and worm castings can be employed. Given the right feedstock, worms themselves can be applied to process all these materials (and the Sea-Crop soaked biochar), turning it into highly available and usable plant foods. For large areas sheet composting could accomplish the practical provision of organic matter feedstock. A big enough farm or garden could provide some of its organic matter needs by growing cover crops and bringing in fallen tree leaves. Marine waste materials (fish scraps, crabshells, seaweed, oystershells, etc.) can be added to spike up compost and castings.
Additionally, it might prove even further worthwhile to add microbial inoculants such as EM-1 (Effective Microbes) and Bio-Zome archeobacteria that also participate in the decomposition of organic matter, and release of minerals present in rock particles. Even without these special inoculants, high populations of beneficial microbes eventually would take up residence within the nooks and crannies provided by biochar. The biochar serves as a protective habitat, enabling microbe populations to expand and thrive. Rock dust that provides slower releasing minerals could be added as well, as these are often byproducts of industrial or manufacturing operations.
Each of these individual ingredients is fabulous by itself; biochar, sea minerals, plant wastes, marine wastes, manures, compost, castings, rock dusts and microbial inoculants. What if they were all combined? What wonderful synergistic effects might this induce? What amazing effects might the combination have on crop growth and nutritional content? If ever there was need of a philanthropist, here it is.
All these materials might be applied to the ground, fields, vineyards, orchards, pastures, etc., and covered with mown cover crops, hay, straw, leaves, etc. Then toss on the worms. Eventually, they would multiply to great numbers, produce abundant castings, tunnel, churn and transform the entire depleted soil and concoction into an incredibly mineral and humus-rich topsoil fit to grow anything extremely well. And the bonus is practically zero disease and pests and few weeds. Worms are the great underappreciated workhorses, capable of accomplishing miraculous renewal and a key to all this. Just ask Charles Darwin.
There is also the option to mix all these ingredients, run them through earthworms, and pelletize the super-enriched castings for other applications, such as vegetable garden fertilizing and the feeding of trees, shrubs and ornamentals. Pelleted fertilizers are especially easy and clean to apply. They could be used with the BLO Fertile Mulching System that couples with liquid Witches’ Brew (molasses, apple cider vinegar, liquid fish, and liquid kelp), poured beneath and beyond the canopy areas prior to mulching. Wow! Stand Back!
I get carried away thinking of the possibilities. This article started out talking about soil loss, rebuilding soil and restoring the fertility of degraded soils around the world. The methods I described are put forward as realistic measures for achieving sustainability. Of course, you can apply them to enrich your own garden soil and raise the nutritional quality of the food you eat.
No doubt some readers will see these materials and methods as being expensive to implement. And they are comparatively higher-priced than half-way and quarter-way measures. The questions to be asked, however, are:
1. What price is too much for robust, life-long health?
2. Is a safer, saner, more sustainable planet worth paying a bit more for?
© 2013 Gary L. Kline
All Rights Reserved