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Practical Organic Gardening: The No-Nonsense Guide to Growing Naturally Hardcover – December 26, 2017
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From the Publisher
02 - It All Begins With Soil: Organic Gardening from the Bottom Up
Soil is one of the most precious resources we have on this planet, yet most people don’t even fully understand what is meant by the term 'soil'. Rather than being dismissed as mere 'dirt,' soil is actually a complex combination of solid mineral particles, organic matter, air, and water that together form a medium that establishes the base of the terrestrial food chain.
The mineral portion of soil includes, essentially, fine particles of ground-up rock minerals. It is formed over the course of millennia as the Earth’s crust weathers via physical processes. Essentially, rocks break down and create soil. Soil properties differ based on the underlying parent bedrock material and environmental conditions present during soil formation, giving rise to the native soil of a location. This is what makes dark black Iowa topsoil different from the red soil of Georgia. Plant a seed in good soil and that seed will grow and thrive as long as Mother Nature provides sunlight and rain.
Biological Properties of Soil - Bacteria
Fungi are vital soil inhabitants responsible for nutrient cycling, soil remediation, and linking vast swaths of soil (and plants) together. Within the fungi category are the mycorrhizal fungi. Mycorrhizae form a symbiotic relationship with plant roots. They connect with plants by growing directly into or between cells along plant roots and exchanging carbon (energy) for nutrients and water. The mycor-rhizal fungi extend a plant’s rooting area dramatically and funnel nutrients and water back to the plant. In exchange, the plant gives the fungus sugars (carbon) to use as an energy source, as fungi lack chlorophyll, the necessary green pigment in leaves that allows a plant to harvest the sun’s energy and convert it into sugars.
Protozoa are larger single-celled organisms, and analysis of them can indicate whether a soil is aerobic (containing oxygen) or anaerobic (lacking oxygen), depending on the type present. Protozoa are the amoeba-shaped animals that cruise through soil looking for bacteria to eat. The C:N ratio of bacteria is less than the C:N ratio of the amoeba. Because the C:N ratio is comparatively less in the bacteria, not all the nitrogen is required by the amoeba to live. The amoeba exudes excess soluble nitrogen absorbed from the bacteria through its cell wall. This watersoluble nitrogen can then be taken up by plant roots or used as food by other microbes.
The safari doesn’t end with bacteria and amoeba! There are fungi that create loops as they grow, in the hopes that a nematode will swim through the loop. In a split second, the loop tightens around the nematode and traps it in the grasp of the fungus. The fungus produces enzymes that break down the nematode into nutrients. The fungus can then absorb the nutrients into its body and the cycle continues. Not all the nutrients are absorbed by the 'fishing' fungus, and some of the nutrients are absorbed by other soil-dwelling organisms, by nearby plant roots, or absorbed back into the soil nutrient bank.
Then there are the nematodes. Nematodes are microscopic organisms that are long and cylindrical in shape with a wormlike appearance (they are nonsegmented roundworms, technically). Nematodes can be beneficial or parasitic. Beneficial nematodes protect plants by infecting insects and eating pathogens. In essence, the process is something like this: a nematode enters a host insect through any given opening or directly through the cell walls. Its secret weapon is the bacteria that live in the nematode’s gut. The nematode 'pukes up' the bacteria while inside the host insect. The bacteria begin to multiply and produce compounds that poison the host and turn the host body to a hot mess of insect goo—which is in turn eaten by the nematode, which then proceeds to multiply over and over due to the abundance of food. The cycle continues until all the food is gone, then the new nematodes burst forth to enter the soil solution and repeat the cycle.
Organic Fertilizers and Amendments
Composted animal manures are nutrient-rich soil amendments.
Compost is the duct tape of the garden. It fixes nearly any problem: poor drainage, dense structure, low nutrient availability. It’s always a good idea to add compost to a new garden bed.
Piles of compost at commercial operations heat up to temperatures high enough to kill disease pathogens and weed seeds, plus quickly produce compost.
Passive composting is a good way for home gardeners to make their own compost.
Why Use Biochar?
Mixing biochar into the soil adds carbon to the soil profile. Because it is practically a permanent soil amendment (especially in terms of a human lifetime), these carbon additions are a good way to store carbon in the soil. In this way, biochar can help in the fight against climate change by sequestering carbon in the ground. It helps sandy, well-drained soils hold moisture, and when added to clay-dominated soils with poor drainage, biochar helps increase air space. This increase in porosity and air space helps slow the conversion of soil nitrogen to gaseous forms that are lost to the atmosphere.
Water-Smart Organic Gardening - Rain Barrel Tips
Check to make sure there are no home owner association or municipal restrictions about where you can use a rain barrel and how large it can be.
Barrels are better for long-term water storage than cubes, because the force is distributed equally in round-shaped barrels. Cubes can split.
Always elevate the rain barrel, as this allows the force of gravity to pressurize the water flow.
Make sure the ground is level where you’re putting the rain barrel and its base. Once full of water, the barrel will be quite heavy and could tip.
Prepare a sturdy base that is wider than the barrel. A gallon of water weighs 8.3 pounds. Make sure the base can support a full barrel that may easily weigh several hundred pounds.
Use a pump only on large cisterns. If a cistern runs dry, you’ll burn up the pump. They’re impractical for smaller rain barrels.
Clean out your rain barrel at the end of the season. Even with a screen on top, algae and scum can form on the inside of the barrel. Store your rain barrels in a dry place over the winter; or turn them upside down and cover them for the winter months.
About the Author
Mark Highland, "The Organic Mechanic," owns and operates The Organic Mechanic Soil Company. With academic training in environmental horticulture, composting, and potting soil. Highland is a sought-after speaker at garden centers, trade shows, and similar venues to promote, educate, and inspire others to the many rewards of organic gardening. He has taught classes at Longwood Gardens, The Tyler Arboretum, Mt. Cuba Center, The Scott Arboretum, Callaway Gardens, and speaks regularly at public events like The Philadelphia Flower Show, as well as to numerous garden clubs. Highland has served as a consultant for the EPA and Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and recently received the Young Professional Award from the Perennial Plant Association.
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When he’s not presenting valuable tips about boosting soil health, Highland covers everything from irrigation and siting, to amendments and mulching, and using organic controls within Integrated Pest Management. He talks about food forests and mushroom farming. He offers solutions for container and raised bed gardening, and explores xeriscaping design. He wades into the lawn/no lawn debate. Chapters explore planning your garden, seed starting, and vegetative propagation.
With its accessible layout, excellent photography, and straightforward, experienced voice, Practical Organic Gardening is comprehensive and highly informative; I can easily see this as a go-to manual for both novice and experienced organic gardeners.
*Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC, provided by the author and/or the publisher in exchange for an honest review.