Barreca Vineyards

Barreca Vineyards

From Vine to Wine since 1986

High Carbon Soil Diet

It’s been a tough winter so far.  Our small greenhouse cover collapsed and big parts of two elm trees broke under the heavy snow crashing into the vineyard.  Only one vine was hurt but there is a lot of cleanup to do. 

Cleanup for me means lopping off the smaller branches and sledding them out to a pile near the shredder.  Branches about the diameter of an arm are stacked in a rack where they can be cut into smaller pieces to burn for biochar.  The pieces big enough to make firewood are cut to length and stacked to dry.  So eventually the whole tree is ready to recycle.

Figure 1 Rack for cutting branches

I was surprised one morning to see a doe standing on the edge of the woods watching me take our food scraps out to the compost pile.  As I walked back by, there she was chowing down on the budding tips of the elm branches I had piled up to shred.  It got me to thinking about the whole process of digestion and nature. 

One of my mentors in understanding natural farming is Youngsang Cho.  In his book, JADAM Organic Farming, he has a lot to say about the philosophy of farming.  (JADAM is an acronym for a Korean phrase meaning “People that Resemble Nature”.)  I’m sure there is a better translation but his advice is rooted in the 16th Century BCE admonition of Asian Philosopher Laozi Dao De Jing who said “The wisdom is always found in nature.” 

An example is that nature lays down a carpet of leaves and grass before winter snow sets in.  Therefore late Fall is the right time to put a layer of mulch on your growing beds.  You will notice that in the Spring after the snow melts and before grass springs up the flattened leaves and dead grass have a web of fungus on them.  I noticed that canes, pine needles and stems that I shredded and left out in tubs earlier in the winter had a similar white fuzz on them.  Fungus is uniquely suited to breaking down the complex molecules of wood.  It can work in the wet cold of winter preparing the way for microbes that like warm earth and old fungus.

Browsing on Elm buds

That doe was part of the continuous cycle of digestion.  Her dung is a rich gold mine that will add to the microbial feast in the soil.  Youngsang Cho says that all microbes are beneficial, especially if local and especially if found under leaf mold.  This goes against some conventional wisdom that fears the rotting parts of plants left on the ground will spread disease in the Spring.  He points out that the minerals and other nutrients most used by a particular plant will be most abundant in the rotting remains of that plant itself.  Sure there will be mold or insect eggs but he further notes that “one mold spore can produce 1 billion in 10 hours.”  In fact he uses that multiplication through microbial teas to fertilize plants and also fight disease. You cannot eradicate mold, weeds or other organisms.  You need to manage the soil to promote health and out-compete disease. 

Weeds fill a vacuum.  Find what the soil needs and fill that need.  Cho admonishes that “The good and bad are one.”  Too much of a good thing can be bad and visa versa. Planting the same plant in the same place is what Nature does all the time.  Having just that one kind of plant in a place is something nature never does.  Cover crops and a rich diversity of organic matter are also what nature does.

Getting back to the deer and the elm tree, I tend to think of nature as one gigantic digestive system and the soil is a big part of it.  Looking at it that way you can think of good soil management as a kind of diet.  Running branches through a shredder or having them trampled by cattle is a bit like chewing your food.  Getting the ground wet is like adding saliva and sending food to the stomach and beyond.

Any of you who have made bread or made wine, know that a tiny bit of yeast given some water, warmth and sugar can become a roiling mass of microbes in short order.  Components of a soil diet mimic the components of a healthy diet in many respects.  You can pretty much guarantee that the microbes will be in the ground already including some yeast and fungus (which are closely related).  Water and warmth come naturally in the Spring when rapid growth occurs.  To carry the analogy further we can group soil components like food diets as carbs, proteins, vitamins, minerals, sugars and probiotics. 

Minerals are the rocks or soluble elements in the dirt itself.  Although a great deal of fuss is made over the proportion and availability of minerals in sand, gravel, clay, acidic and alkaline dirt, the bottom line is that microbes move these minerals into organic compounds and balance out their contributions to overall soil health.  Reducing descriptions of soil health to a periodic chart seen through a spectrograph without acknowledging the trillions of microbes, 99.9% of which we cannot replicate in a lab or identify (JADAM Organic Farming, page 59) misses the fact that each kind of bacteria is a tiny chemical factory that makes these minerals available to other microbes as organic compounds, all of which by definition include carbon.  Adding boron, lime and other refined minerals can have lasting good or bad effects.  “Good and bad are one.”

The biggest proportion of a good soil diet is carbon-rich cellulose – straw, wood chips, shredded branches and leaves.  These take a long time and many transformations to build the soil.  But if you want long term organic matter and microbial life, start there even if you don’t have anything else.

Downed Elm Tree

For the protein part of this diet I would suggest the really rich components of manure, rotten fish and spoiled grain.  These give a quick boost of nitrogen and a healthy source of probiotic microbes that can leap into action with a little warmth and water.  Like protein, a little goes a long way. “Good and bad are one.” Too much too soon will burn your plants. (In humans too much protein can increase inflammation.)

For vegetables I would add, well, vegetables.  Basically fresh cut green grass and other plants that feed worms and larger biota.  Rotting green material takes up some of the nitrogen from manure etc.  So it can be used as a buffer.  It works from the bottom up so crushing a cover crop and planting through the debris can feed the crop and suppress competition too.

Amazingly, food grade sugar itself can be used as a fertilizer.  I have read of molasses diluted in water as a crop stimulant.  As with any sugar I would proceed with caution.  I’m imagining hordes of ants and flies with overuse.  Nevertheless bacteria and fungi get sugar from the roots of photosynthesizing plants so it is a part of the soil diet.

In a related news item, eating charcoal reduces flatulence in cows ( Cattle ranchers tell me that cows will eat charcoal  when they feel like it (not briquettes that have binders etc. in them).  In Australia a farmer added it to cattle feed as a way to incorporate charcoal into the soil.  It is known to retain moisture and provide shelter to keep bacteria and other microbes from being leached out by rain.  As a bonus charcoal (biochar) sequesters carbon. 

Although that was the main objective for the Australian farmer, Doug Pow, adding biochar to feed can also reduce up to 20% of methane released by cows.  Methane is 25 time more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide so it is a big deal.  ( Part of Pow’s breakthrough was that he imported cow dung beetles that immediately bury cow pies and stop further release of methane as well as adding the carbon to the soil.  So, yes, add biochar to your soil’s diet.

I tend to think of this mixture as a mulch rather than a compost.  As a top dressing the hyphae from the fungi can grow without being broken as they would be when compost is worked into the soil.  But timing is also a factor.  Richer feed in the spring, some special snacks before harvest and a lot of cellulose before winter: sounds like a healthy soil diet to me.

There are also a number of “herbal” remedies for soil problems, but this is probably enough to digest for now.

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