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From My Garden to Yours

Tom Carey

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The bottom line to any agricultural system is the soil. Just as our houses are more than protection from the weather, the soil is more than a mooring for roots. Innumerable qualities and quantities define soil types and productivity. When I was a boy, growing up on what had been my great grandfather’s farm outside of Chicago, I took for granted the thick, rich, black topsoil full of wriggling earthworms. What I would not give to trade some of my sandy Florida scrub soil for that black Midwestern humus.

Readily available, water-soluble chemical fertilizers force-feed roots and imbalanced tonic by osmosis. This short-term, cheap fix only leads to weakened plants and soil degradation. By using a variety of naturally occurring fertilizers and amendments, soil improves with use. Bottom line: healthy soil that grows healthy plants grows healthy people.

Plant growth depends on many types of soil nutrients. Various forms of bulk nitrogen compounds to the most obscure mineral are included in the spectrum of essential elements. Humus, compost, peat, muck, sand and clay provide a framework for the interactions between soil, microorganisms and roots. Soil life then creates the vitamins, enzymes and nutrients of what we call healthy food.

Soil improvement is as constant a process as plant growth. Just as we continually harvest and eat from our gardens, we need to constantly feed our soil. Kitchen scraps from our daily preparations should be added to the compost pile as quickly as they are produced. Make a steady stream of compost tea from rain barrel water to frequently nourish growing plants (keep an eye out for mosquito larvae). Use lawn trimmings each mowing as mulch or compost additions. Sprouting seeds don’t like too much fertilizer at once, but a twice weekly feeding schedule of diluted proportions keeps everybody content.

Macronutrient fertilizers consisting of nitrogen as ammonia or nitrates, phosphorous, potassium, calcium and carbon are available as singular or combination products. The dozens of trace elements necessary for healthy plant growth must be sought after using eclectic methods. Seaweed and ocean-borne fertilizers accomplish our elemental scavenger hunt in one fell swoop. Seek out as many various contributors as possible.

Although we can garden year-round in Central Florida, summer would be the most likely candidate for an “off-season”. Cover-crops that blanket the ground preclude weeds and recover fertilizers leached beyond the root district take advantage of this down time. A limiting factor of cover-crop use is incorporating them into the soil at the start of the next growing season. Tilling this green manure into the soil reinvests our lost elements into the usable zone.