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Digging Deep

Amending soil for rich, fertile planting

In my mind there are several classic film moments. One is when Dorothy opens her black and white door onto the technicolor of Oz. Another is when Red and Andy embrace on the pristine Mexican beach ending my perennial film favorite, “Shawshank Redemption.” But my all time favorite film moment is in “Gone with the Wind,” when Scarlett, silhouetted in a glowing crimson sunset, clenches a handful of soil and declares, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

This moment deeply resonates with my DNA, a DNA built from generations of ancestors who tilled the soil and harvested the bounty of the land. I was thrilled earlier this spring to move into a house that sat on a huge cleared lot. I would once again have the garden of my dreams.

I had visions of generously giving away my bountiful harvest to family and friends and I’d have a pantry filled with canned tomatoes, beans and pickles. But those dreams were dashed the moment I turned over my first shovelful of soil. It was solid clay more dense than cement. Unlike the soil Scarlett clenched, I knew my soil would do precious little to keep me from starvation.

This was the kind of soil where most folks would simply stop and build some containers and grow in raised beds. Not me, I plodded along and amended the soil the best my budget would allow. I did, however, make a promise that come fall I would commit to a strategy of completely building up my soil.

“Louisiana soil is normally comprised of thick layers of clay, which lack the organic matter and permeability that plants need to thrive,” says Martin Romero, a landscape architect with Mullin Landscape Associates LLC. “Removing some of the dense clay layers and supplementing with fertile topsoil (mixture of organic material and sandy loam for added drainage benefit) help the long term health and vitality of plants by stimulating root growth. Just like us…you get out, what you put in.”

Another reason for adding organic matter to your soil is to provide food for the beneficial microorganisms that release nutrients into the soil as they decompose the organic matter. By feeding the worms and millipedes and other tiny organisms, we improve our soil.

So I am ready to get to work; I am not going to till up my garden. That would destroy what little structure my soil already has. I will pull out weeds, finish my meager harvest and then begin covering my garden from now until spring with loads of organic material.

I plan to start with manure. This is the first layer because it takes at least six months for manure to break down sufficiently. I get my manure from Sugar Roots Farm. This amazing little farm is home to turkeys, chickens, goats, pigs, horses, Martha the Cow, sheep, a llama and lots of rabbits. I volunteer to muck out the pens and my reward is as much manure as I can smush into my containers. Sharessa Garland runs the farm as a hands-on, interactive educational experience and offers farm tours and kids’ camps.  It provides children a great insight into the farm-to-table movement.

Next, I’ll keep adding layers of leaves, grass clippings, compost and straw throughout the fall and winter. I am shooting for at least four inches of organic matter. The final step is to make sure to keep it moist but not waterlogged.

So if all goes as planned next spring I’ll have the best soil in the 7th Ward and by July I’ll be giving away my bountiful harvest to family and friends — I will never go hungry again!

Good Reading

“The Soul of Soil: A Soil-Building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers,” by Joe Smillie and Grace Gershuny

This book provides essential information about one of the most significant challenges for those attempting to grow delicious organic vegetables: the creation and maintenance of healthy soil.

“Out of the Earth: Civilization and the Life of the Soil,” by Daniel Hillel

“Out of the Earth,” offers a description of the complex inner processes that form soil with a lyrical assertion of its powers and significance. “Soil is a living entity: the crucible of life, a seething foundry in which matter and energy are in constant flux and life is continually created and destroyed,” Hillel says.

“The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden,” by William Alexander.

This delightful book explores the author’s joyful obsession with tending his kitchen garden. His honest account is educational, insightful and highly entertaining.


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