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Earthworms
are the intestine
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    —Aristotle
Remineralize
the future of food

Seer Centre report
rock powder
soil amendments

How to Improve Topsoil
How to Make Topsoil
Recycle Garbage into Greengold

by David Yarrow, Fall 1991

"To forget how to dig the earth
and tend the soil,
is to forget ourselves."
Ghandi

   If agriculture is to serve the survival of the next generation, we need dramatic changes in strategy from current addictive dependence on oil and machines, to a sustainable, ecologically sensible farming way of life based on stewardship and care. A truly sensible agriculture must have as its first and principal product—not vegetables, grains, fruits, dairy, or meat—but new topsoil.
   Only if farmers learn to create healthy, fertile fields again will our agriculture continue to feed us and the next generation. And only if the whole community of consumers encourages farmers in this, can this strategy succeed. City and country must join hands to restore the lifecycle to soils.
   This short story tells how homeless men from Manhattan learned how to make topsoil.

Nearly every earthwise person who reinhabits a piece of land will have to bring part of that land back into intensive food production. In most cases, topsoil will be thin, exhausted, acidified, sterilized, and weak. An immediate challenge to an earthwise homesteader is to create new, healthy topsoil where there is now none.

Here at Earthwise Education Center, we discovered quite by accident a way to rapidly put poor land into vegetable production, without relying on machines, petroleum or chemicals. You don't even need to cultivate the soil. It's actually not new, but is an ancient technique that's still successfully practiced after thousands of years. It persists because it works.

Year One: Squashing Weeds

Last winter, when we recruited homeless to be Earthwise homesteaders, we visited Native Farms, then New York City's only all-organic foodstore at 332 E. 11th St. near Tompkins Square Park. There we met Jeff Romano, eco-activist-turned-businessman, who sat on NYC's Earth Day 1990 Planning Council. After Earth Day, Jeff set out to open his store, and got it going by year's end.

Being eco-conscientious, Jeff hated to throw out his garbage. After all, it was high priced organic fruits and vegetables. Why send it to an incinerator, or landfill, or barge to dump in the Atlantic Ocean? But no one in Manhattan makes compost to turn this natural refuse into national resource.

So, Jeff put his organic leftovers in plastic garbage bags, and put it in his walk-in freezer, hoping soon NYC, NYS—or someone—will devise a sensible way to dispose of compostable wastes.

Well, summer came and his freezer got full. So Jeff loaded his frozen garbage in rented truck and drove five hours into upstate NY to Earthwise. (Jeff didn't know he was violating local, state and federal laws—ala Alice's Restaurant.) We were not overjoyed at this uninvited, unexpected gift from the Big Apple.

Here at Earthwise, we have a 18 x 70 foot cinderblock foundation that we plan to cover with a greenhouse. But the dirt inside this foundation was about the poorest soil we had—pure glacial till—just sand and rocky subsoil fill—no topsoil.

So, our new homesteaders dumped the melting mass from Manhattan out of the bags and spread it inside this foundation. By then, it was no longer fully frozen, and beginning to smell quite rank. So we covered this awful offal with rock dust, lime and composted manure, as much to hide the smell as the sight of this gooey garbage. Then we went on to other projects.

Two weeks later, we noticed green shoots sprouting through the manure. These proved to be—not weeds—but vegetables: squash, watermelon, tomato, amaranth, and other edibles. So we left these volunteers to fend for themselves.

Two months later, the whole foundation was overrun with squash and melon vines. The tomatoes struggled to hold their own against this invasion. While our carefully seeded squash plants struggled along, these wildling squashes grew tall, lush, dark green, and loaded with blossoms.

Now, in mid-September, this unplanned patch is our finest garden. We've already harvested bushels of squash, with more still ripening. Most are green acorns and hybrid summer squash. But the grandest surprise is an unusual albino acorn; these white, silk-skinned fruit enclose tender, rich flavored meat—the taste of waste is a delicate, delicious delight.

One watermelon did out-sprint the squash to bear two fruit. The tomatoes—a cherry type—never had a chance, but the amaranth grew to branching bushes with big brushy seed heads.

We gathered an abundant harvest from a plot of sand, without planning to plant a single seed, or ever having to pull one weed. Matter of fact, barely a dozen weeds survived the attack of the squash. In one year, we have total weed control on this patch of now fertile land—and an abundant harvest.

This bit of simple serendipitious wisdom didn't slip past our earthwise awareness. We already recycle homeless humans off the streets into homesteaders on the land; we're transforming consumers into producers. Why not garbage, too? We now have a formula to make rich, fertile soil from urban spoil. And waste, after all, is America's fastest growing resource.

Our recipe to recycle garbage into green and trash into cash has four main ingredients:

Garbage: Green plant material is rich in carbon, primarily as sugars in cellulose & starch, and feeds energy (carbohydrates) to organisms that eat organic wastes. Fresh garbage is full of cells and protoplasm—rich, yummy food for microbes and fungi that devour and digest this luscious debris into dark dirt. Abundant moist vegetable matter (including grass clippings) accelerates fermentation and humus formation.

Manure: Compost needs a balance of carbon and nitrogen (C:N ratio) for fermentation to be strong, stable and sustained. Carbon from plants supplies energy (carbohydrates); nitrogen from animals gives amino acids to build proteins, membranes and cell structures. Garbage is carbon; animal manure supplies the needed nitrogen in digestible form. Also, good manure teems with bacteria and other microbial life to inoculate the fermentation and digestion of green vegetable matter.

Rock Dust: Soil is made from rocks. Rock is the parent from which comes the soil's minerals; soil is actually a form of decayed rock. Minerals provide electromagnetic charges to energize the biochemical reactions needed to power plant metabolism. If soil (or compost) has plentiful minerals, all its biological activities are stronger, faster, fuller, richer. Rock dust reinvigorates soil by supplying a glut of easy-to-digest minerals, including trace minerals and micronutrients. As dust, stones are ground to fine powder so their minerals are easily digested by bacteria and other soil life, and thus quickly assimilated into cell protoplasm. Minerals also impart taste to food; mineral rich soil grows vegetables with uncommon flavor.

Lime—a special rock dust—counteracts the acids of decay and fermentation. For life to happen, there must be a balance between acid (+) and alkaline (-); in chemistry, this factor is called pH. If soil is too acid, there's a shortage of free electrons and most biochemical reactions slow down, and pathological conditions develop. Lime is mostly calcium carbonate (CaCO3). Adding lime to compost sweetens it, and supplies of alkalyzing elements—primarily calcium—and free electrons. In today's acid rains, liming soil and compost is ever more important. Wood ash performs a similar service to lime; the alkalyzing element is potassium (potash), not calcium.

Leaf Mold: Compost needs a strong, active population of microbes and molds to digest these ingredients. So a sprinkling of brown & black humus from the forest floor by the garden was added. This, along with the manure, seeded the microbial activity of the mix.

Four ingredients of this topsoil recipe are cheap and plentiful: garbage, manure, lime, and leaf mold; only rock dust is hard to get.

However, it's a costly trip to ship all that garbage from Manhattan. Besides, eventually the regulators will get wise to our trash-into-cash dream scheme and intervene.

So we looked close to home for organic resource going to waste. We found an abundance.

Year Two: Let it Bean

We'll continue our experiment with sheet composting. Over winter, we will throw a layer of leaves and straw on this soil and leave it as a weed cover in the spring.

Our Earthwise homesteaders will be growing organic produce to market to households, stores and restaurants in local towns and cities. We'll make a deal with each customer: we'll not only sell you vegetables, but reclaim your garbage, too. Mixing kitchen cuttings and table tossings with manure, rock dust, wood ash, and lime will make dandy dirt to grow more and better vegetables. Round foot by square yard, slowly our cropland will be covered by reusable refuse.

Properly dumped, a heap of garbage will yield three benefits in the first year: 1) bumper crop of curcurbits, 2) annihilation of weeds, and 3) rich, living soil suitable for certain vegetables. But truly regenerating soil is a five year process; sheet composting is no quick fix. We accomplished a lot in one year, but we know a lot remains to be do to make truly good, strong topsoil. So, what to plant in the second year? Given Nature's complex patterns, it's unlikely growing squash again the second year is the proper next step to transform sand into soil.

Squash is the elder sister. Corn and beans are her younger siblings in an ancient Trinity called "The Three Sisters." Dry corn and beans provide half of a winter food supply, and seed to sow a new cycle next spring. Elder sister squash provides another quarter of our winter food, and begins this soil regeneration cycle. Beans are the middle sister; cycle two should let it bean.

In soil chemistry, beans fix nitrogen from air to form nitrates in soil. Actually, beans don't do this; tiny bacteria of the Rhizobia family live on bean roots. These microbes combine nitrogen in air with oxygen to make nitrates, one of the bulk nutrients needed for healthy plant growth. Corn is a heavy feeder on nitrogen, so it makes sense to plant beans in our new topsoil before we plant corn. It also makes sense to inoculate the beans with Rhizobia bacteria. A second dressing of rock dust assures these microbes get all trace minerals they need.

Most of these beans will be dry beans of traditional, native and heirloom varieties. We will watch these varieties closely to learn which grow best in our northern, sandy soil, and mature well with little mold in our cool, moist fall weather. We believe the older varieties contain the genetic qualities needed to adapt them to our farm's special conditions.

In future years, we'll also seed some areas to other legume family members, such as clover, alfalfa, vetch, trefoil, and lupines. Like beans, they fix nitrogen and prepare soil for planting corn. Some of these are perennial or biennial, and thus will grow for two or more years, enriching the soil constantly. Sown thickly, they will choke out nearly all surviving weeds.

In the second year perennial beds of sunchokes will be established along the margins of fields. These wildling native cousins of sunflowers form a fall-harvested starchy edible tuber much like a potato. The two brothers—sunflowers and tobacco—will also be planted on the plot's edges.

Sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) are a native perennial with superior taste and nutrition to potatoes. Naturalized flowers and herbs will provide food and homes for beneficial insects such as predatory wasps.

Year Three: Corn, the Third Sister

By the third year, good supplies of nitrogen and other nutrients will be built up in our new soil. A heavy layer of mulch and another sprinkling of rock dust will protect this new soil over the winter and spring. Now, in the third spring, we can plant the third sister: Corn.

Corn's erect, vertical character marks this plant as a light gatherer. Corn collects and concentrates high quality, high energy carbohydrates and oils in its seeds, while its roots penetrate and loosen soil.

Our emphasis is open-pollinated, native seed strains, and other seeds with heirloom heritage in their genes. Again, we will observe which varities thrive in our soil and climate, and select and save the best for next year's seed. Thus will begin our Earthwise seed bank.

Two alternative crops to corn are quinoa and amaranth. Like corn, they are New World native grain crops which seem to prefer a high nitrogen reserve in soil.

Organic Farmer
Tom MacDonald
shows off giant, sturdy weeds
growing in glacial gravel dust
workshop for farmers & our future
Soil Fertility, Biofuels,
& Carbon Sequestration
local agriculture & global climate
renewing our regional farm economies
Molybdenum
Missing Element
in the Climate Change Equation
September 2005

a single trace element in topsoil essential to one enzyme in a bacteria exponentially accelerates removing carbon from air, thus slows global warming and climate change


SEA-90
now available
Dr. Maynard Murray's
Sea Solids

Greening the Desert
making soil in Dead Sea deserts
Australian Permaculture
in The Middle East

Fire in the Water
how mineral becomes biology
the lost legacies of
Dr. Gorge Earp-Thomas
inventor of Tracelyte™


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The Earth Renewal and Restoration Alliancewww.championtrees.orgupdated 12/31/2005