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Hello, I've ordered a soil test kit and a Stirrup hoe. I bought a rake, I've yet to setup my compost bin.
I'm trying to figure whats better for turning soil about a foot down. The top 6 inches or so have been tilled . Underneath is hard packed. Should I get a digging fork , broadfork, or a shovel. I don't want to break the tool. I saw narrow long shovels in Home Depot today.
Thanks Diesel.
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Pointy Shovel for turning soil a foot deep. Transfer Shovel for moving soil or finished compost. Garden rake with a one side that is flat for leveling soil. Six or more prong Manure forks are best for turning a compost pile. Broad fork is a luxury item if you have lots of soil to turn that is already loose. A "half moon" edging tool is a nice tool for creating a nice sharp looking boarder.
As for breaking tools I find wood is worse. I prefer fiberglass or all steel, cheap steel will bend and wood breaks to easy.
Now if you have money to burn a John Deer tractor or a Bobcat.... Sweet !
--
Enjoy Life... Nad R (Garden in zone 5a Michigan)

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wrote:

I appreciate the reply. A good Ole shovel is still the way. I saw two good ones at Home Depot. The broad forks look cool . With two handles, but I wasn't sure it would break or not.
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wrote:

I bought a Wilkinsons spade a few years ago when I started gardening. It has a tubular metal shaft and have used it like a crowbar to lift large roots from trees I have felled and it is as good as new. I have put all my weight into it, bounced on it. Still as new. If you buy a spade like this, make sure it is all one piece and not joined with rivets if it is going to take the work I describe. A fork is different, as you know, because it does not matter how strong the shaft is, the tines will bend with too much pressure.
Baz
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wrote:

It looks like im going to be shoveling dirt. I want to go a foot down and turn it over. Mix in my straw and some peat and sand.
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wrote:

So you have clay soil? I would go for a metal shafted set of tools if they are going to last you out. You can buy them for a fiver each at discount stores in UK, such as Poundstretcher, my fork is from there and its as strong as I need it to be. Do you need to go a foot deep, all over, at once? Hard work. You could just dig that deep for root veg this year and with rotation, next year do the same and so on until the whole plot is done...... ....then start again.
Baz
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Most veggies only need six inches, like lettuces, others like carrots need at least a foot. So it depends on what you want. The deeper the soil the more crowding of the veggies you can do. Shallow soil you will need to plant them further apart. The roots will go deep if the can, if not they will spread out.
Double digging. The first part you dig put in a wheel barrel. Then rotate and fill in the part that was dug... At the end fill in with the dirt from the wheel barrel. As time goes by, the soil will get looser to the point where shoveling is not needed.
--
Enjoy Life... Nad R (Garden in zone 5a Michigan)

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wrote:

Oh...........
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<http://www.wikihow.com/Double-Dig-a-Garden
--
- Billy
“When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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wrote:

Its been tilled down 6 or 9 inches. I can tell theres a hard pack though. When I did plant carrots a long trime ago. They turned up. I want to get that pack broke about a foot down. More or less, I want to get at the 6 inches that are under the tilled soil.
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Turning soil once, when you first prepare a garden bed, is a good idea (not needed but it will speed up development of the garden soil). Subsequent turning undoes the work of your earthworms and mycorrhiza. What it does is aerate the soil, which accelerates the decomposition of the soils organic content, which releases nutrients to feed your plants, but leads to loss of organic matter in your soil, and possibly consuming the soils nitrogen, leaving none for your plants. It's much easier to work with nature using no-till approaches such as lasagna gardening, or sheet mulching.
--
- Billy
When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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Can you explain a bit more of this scientific research which has occupied some vacant cells in the vast extremities within your active, if not overactive organ we laughingly call a brain? The OP asked for advice, not theory and some spooky sounding crap from some weirdo. If it is even remotely, remotely even possible what you have driveled, would you not think that the commercial growers might have listened?
Please don't try to fill peoples heads with this kind of crap.
As I asked earlier, please give a bit more of an explaination, if you can invent some more bullshit, er sorry, scientific research results.
Baz
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it is not crap. The information Billy provided is sound. It is on the scientific side. Most here are scientist, including myself. I tend to use the principle called KISS, Keep It Simple Stupid, when dealing with those I do not know. On the usenet there are many different styles of explaining things. Some prefer the simple, others prefer the complex phrasing. On usenet take what you want and ignore the rest.
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Enjoy Life... Nad R (Garden in zone 5a Michigan)

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I doubt crainal-rectally inverted, such as yourself, would understand, but here goes. Please excuse the paucity of invectives that I know you rely on to communicate, and apologies for lack of any pictures that are probably necessary to maintain your attention. This forum is usually used by adults, but give it a go anyway. You have nothing to lose, but your profound ignorance.
Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture (Paperback) by Toby Hemenway (Amazon.com product link shortened) 580298/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid71266976&sr=1-1
p.74 It's early autumn, and the oak tree in an untended corner of your neighbor's yard is shedding its leaves. One dry leaf nutters down between tall blades of unmown grass and settles on a patch of bare soil. At first, not much happens, because the leaf is too dry to be appetizing to any of the soil's many denizens (we'll assume your neighbor doesn't spray pesticides or herbicides on this corner of her yard, as these chemicals greatly diminish soil life). Also, this leaf, like most, contains nasty-tasting compounds to protect it from munching insects. The next morning, though, dew has wetted the leaf, and the protective chemicals have begun to leach out. A light drizzle accelerates the washing process. The leaf droops moistly against the soil. When the leaf is rinsed free of polyphenols and the other bitter-tasting compounds and tenderized by moisture, the feast begins. Among the first at the table are bacteria that have lain dormant on the leaf surface. They revel in the moisture and begin to bloom, secreting enzymes that tear apart the long chains of sugar molecules composing' the leaf cell walls. In just hours, the leaf is speckled with the dark blotches of bacterial colonies. Wind-bome spores of fungi land and burst into life, and soon the white threads of fungal cells, called hyphae, knit a lacework across the leaf. Fungi possess a broad spectrum of enzymes able to digest lignin (the tough molecules that make wood so strong) and other hard-to-eat components of plants. This gives them a critical niche in the web of decomposers; without them, Earth might be neck-deep in fallen, undecomposable tree trunks.
Moistened by rain and softened by microbial feeding, the leaf quickly succumbs to attack by larger creatures. Millipedes, pill bugs (isopods), fly larvae, springtails, oribatid mites, enchytraeid worms, and earthworms begin to feed on the tasty tissue, shredding the leaf into small scraps. All of these invertebrates, together with bacteria, algae, fungi, and threadlike fungal relatives called actinomycetes, are the first to dine on rotting organic matter. They are called the primary decomposers. Earthworms are the most visible and among the most important primary decomposers, so let's watch one as it feeds on our leaf.
The earthworm grabs a leaf chunk and slithers into its burrow. With its rasping mouthparts, the worm pulverizes the leaf fragment, sucking in soil at the same time. The mixture churns its way to the worm's gizzard, where surging muscles grind the leaf and soil mixture into a fine paste. The paste moves deeper into the earthworm's gut. Here bacteria help with digestion, much as our own gut flora helps us process otherwise unavailable nutrients from our food. When the worm has wrung all the nutrients from the paste, it excretes what remains of the leaf and soil, along with gut bacteria caught in the paste. These worm castings coat the burrow with fertile, organically enriched earth. Before long, hungry bacteria, fungi, and microscopic soil animals will find this cache of organic matter and flourish in walls of the burrow, adding their own excretions and dead bodies to the supply.
Fueled by the leaf's nutrients, the worm tunnels deeper into the ground, loosening, aerating, and fertilizing the soil. Rain will trickle down the burrow, threading moisture deeper into the earth than previously. The soil will stay damp a little longer between rains. In spring, a growing root from the oak tree will find this burrow, and, coaxed by the easy passage and the tunnel's lining of organic food, will extend deep enough to tap that stored moisture. The worm, with its fertile castings and a burrow that lets air, water, and roots penetrate the earth, will have aided the oak tree and much of the other life in the soil. Worms are among the most beneficial of soil animals: They turn over as much as twenty-five tons of soil per acre per year, or the equivalent of one inch of lopsoil over Earth's land surface every ten years.
Meanwhile, on the surface, the feasting inver-
p.75 tebrates continue to shred the leaf into tiny bitsor comminute it, in soil-specialist parlance. Comminution exposes more leaf surfacetender inner edges at thatto attack by bacteria and fungi, further hastening decomposition. Also, the small army of mites, larvae, and other invertebrates feeding on the leaf deposit a fair load of droppings, or frass, which also becomes food for other decomposers (a microscope reveals that many decomposing leaves are thickly covered with frass, which adds up to an enormous amount of fertile manure). Any leaf bits that aren't fully digested un their first passage through a decomposer's gut are eaten again and again by one tiny being after another until the organic matter is mashed into microscopic particles. Soil invertebrates such as worms and mites don't really alter the chemical composition of the leaftheir job is principally to pulverize litter. Their scurrying and tunneling also mixes the leaf particles with soil, where the fragments stay moist and palatable for others. In some cases, the animals' gut microbes can break down tenacious large molecules such as chitin, keratin, and cellulose into their simpler sugarlike components. The real alchemythe chemical transformation of the leaf into humus and plant foodis done by microorganisms.
As the soil animals reduce the leaf to droppings and microscopic particles, a second wave of
bacteria, fungi, and other microbes descends on the remains. Using enzymes and the rest of their metabolic chemistry sets, these microbes snap large molecules into small, edible fragments. Cellulose and lignin, the tough components of plant cell walls, are cleaved into tasty sugars and aromatic carbon rings. Other microbes hack long chains of leaf protein into short ammo acid pieces. Some of these microbes are highly specialized, able to break down only a few types of molecules, but soil diversity is immensea teaspoon of soil may hold 5,000 species of bacteria, each with a different set of chemical tools. Thus, working together, this veritable orchestra of thousands of species of bacteria, fungi, algae, and others fully decompose not only our sample leaf but almost anything else it encounters.
Besides breaking down organic matter, these microbes also build up soil structure. As they feed, certain soil bacteria secrete gums, waxes, and gels that hold tiny particles of earth together. Dividing fungal cells lengthen into long fingers of hyphae that surround crumbs of soil and bind them to each other. These miniclumps give microbially rich soil its good "tilth": the loose, crumbly structure that gardeners and farmers strive for. Also, these gooey microbial by-products protect soil from drying and allow it to hold huge volumes of water. Without soil life, earth just dries up and blows away or clumps together after a rain and forms clay-bound, root- thwarting clods.
Microbes don't live longjust hours or days. As they die, larger microbes and soil animals consume their bodies. Also, predators abound in the soil ecosystem. Voracious amoebae lurk in films of soil moisture, ready to engulf a hapless bacterium. Mold mites, springtails, certain beetles, and a host of others feed on the primary decomposers and are called, in turn, secondary decomposers. Larger predators feed on the secondary (and some primary) decomposers that have come to our leaf. These are centipedes, ground beetles, pseudoscorpions, predatory mites, ants, and spiders, also known as the tertiary decomposers.
Although this orderprimary, secondary, and tertiary decomposersseems to suggest a linear hierarchy, the boundaries are not hard-and-fast. The frass and dead body of even the largest spider become food for bacteria and other primary decomposers, so it's hard to say who's on top. Soil ecology is a set of nested cycles, and a detailed drawing of it would be laced with arrows, almost blackened with the interconnections that tie the life and death of each species to many of the others.
How Humus Is Made
Now our leaf is almost fully decomposed. How, then, does it become plant foodhow does it return to life and reconnect to plants and to our garden? The leaf's contents (those that don't forever recycle in life or dissipate as gases) end up as one of two substances, humus or minerals. Both are critical to healthy plants. We'll look at humus first.
As our leaf is shredded, chewed, and chemically dissolved by soil organisms, some parts of the leaf decompose more quickly than others. The first tissues to go are those made of sugars and starches, which soil life quickly converts into energy, carbon dioxide, or more organisms. A little harder to digest are celluloses and some types of proteins, which are chains and sheets of tightly linked small molecules. Not all soil organisms have the special enzymes needed to break the crisscrossed bonds that hold these polymers together, so these compounds decompose more slowly. Even tougher to break down are polymers known as lignins, which give wood its strength; chitins, which make up the armored coats of insects; and certain types of waxes. Only specialized soil organisms, particularly fungi, can break down these tenacious molecules. Organisms that can't crack these hardy compounds nevertheless give it their best shot. Microbes work
p.77 them over, nibbling and modifying the portions they can digest. In a process that is still poorly understood, microbes and other forces of decomposition convert lignins and the other hard-core leaf compounds into humus, a fairly stable, complex collection of many substances that only slowly undergoes further decomposition. Humus is made up mostly of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen, bonded together in ways that make it difficult for soil organisms to break them down into the constituent elements.
In a sense, humus is the end of the road for organic matter: By the time our leaf's remains have reached the humus stage, decomposition has slowed to a snail's pace. Since organisms can't easily break down humus, it accumulates in the soil. It will eventually decompose, but in healthy soil, freshly composting debris arrives at least as fast as the old humus is broken down, resulting in a slow turnover and constant buildup of humus.
When pushed, soil organisms can decompose humus, but only grudgingly and usually if there is nothing else to eat. If humus levels are dropping, it's a sign that the soil is in very bad shape. It means that all of the easily digestable organic matter is gone, and the inhabitants are, in effect, burning down the house to keep warm. Humus is critical to soil health; thus, wise gardeners keep their soil rich in humus. For now we'll see why; later we'll learn how.
Of all the ingredients of soil, humus is by far the best at holding moisture and will absorb four to six times its weight in water. Have you ever tried to pick up a wet bale of peat moss? It's monstrously heavy, and it will take months to dry out. Peat moss isn't exactly humusit's organic matter that's been arrested on its way to becoming humus because peat bogs lack the oxygen for decomposers to finish the jobbut hoisting a wet bale of peat moss gives some idea of how well humus holds moisture.
Humus also swells when it's wet, so humus-rich soil will gently heave upward after a rain. As this soil dries, the humus shrinks, leaving air spaces between soil crumbs. This expanding and shrinking process lightens the soil, acting a little like tilling but with far less disruption and damage to the soil life. In humusy, fluffed-up earth, roots and soil organisms can easily tunnel in search of nutrients, and these travelers further aerate the soil. Water penetrates the loosened soil more deeply and is stored longer by the humus. Here is another life-enhancing positive feedback loop: Humus allows moisture and soil organisms to move deeper into the soil, where they create more humus, allowing yet deeper penetration, building humus again, and so on.
Where humus really excels is in holding nutrients. The humus molecule illustrated below shows that, from an atom's-eye viewpoint, the face that humus presents to the world is a bristling array of oxygen atoms. Oxygen has a strong negative charge, and in chemistry, as in much of life, opposites attract. Thus, humus's many negative oxygen atoms serve as "bait" for luring lots of positively charged elements. These include some of the most important nutrients for both plants and soil animals: potassium, calcium, magnesium, p.78 ammonium (a nitrogen compound), copper, zinc, manganese, and many others. Under the right conditions (in soil with a pH near 7, that is, neither too acid nor too alkaline), humus can pick up and store enormous quantities of positively charged nutrients.
How do these nutrients move from the humus to plants? Plant roots, as noted, secrete very mild acids which break the bonds that hold the nutrients onto the humus. The nutrients from humus are washed into the soil moisture, creating a rich soup. Bathed in this nutritious broth, the plants can absorb as much calcium, ammonium, or other nutrient as they need. There's evidence to suggest that when plants have supped long enough, they stop the flow of acid to avoid depleting the humus.
That's the direct method plants use to pull nutrients from humus. Just as common in healthy soil is an indirect route, in which microbes are the middlemen. This type of plant feeding involves an exchange. Roots secrete sugars and vitamins that are ideal food for beneficial bacteria and fungi. These microbes thrive in huge numbers close to roots and even attach to them, lapping up the plant-made food and bathing in the film of moisture that surrounds the roots. In return, the microbes produce acids and enzymes that release the humus-bound nutrients and share this food with the plants.
Microbes also excrete food for plants in their waste. One more big plus for plants is that many of the fungi and other microbes secrete antibiotics that protect the plants from disease. All of these mutual exchanges create a truly symbiotic relationship. Many plants have become dependent on particular species of microbial partners and grow poorly without them. Even when the plant-microbe partnership isn't this specific, plants often grow much faster when microbes are present than they do in a sterile or microbe-depleted environment.
The Soil's Mineral Wealth
Having covered humus, let's look at the parts of our leaf that meet a mineral fate. Like most living things, leaves are made primarily of carbon-containing compounds: sugars, proteins, starches, and many other organic molecules. When soil creatures eat these compounds, some of the carbon becomes part of the consumer, as cell membrane, wing case, eyeball, or the like. And some of the carbon is released as a gas: carbon dioxide, or CO, (our breath contains carbon dioxide for the same reason). Soil organisms consume the other elements that make up the leaf, too, such as nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, and all the rest, but most of those are reincorporated into solid matterorganism or bug manureand remain earthbound. A substantial portion of the carbon, however, puffs into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This means that, in decomposing matter, the ratio of carbon to the other elements is decreasing; carbon drifts into the air, but most nitrogen, for example, stays behind. The carbon-to-nitrogen ratio decreases. (Compost enthusiasts will recognize this C:N ratio as a critical element of a good compost pile.) In decomposition, carbon levels drop quickly, while the amounts of the other elements in our decomposing leaf stay roughly the same.
By the time the final rank of soil organisms, the microbes, is finished swarming over the leaf and digesting it, most of the consumable carbonthat which is not tied up as humusis gone. Little remains but inorganic (non-carbon-containing) compounds, such as phosphate, nitrate, sulfate, and other chemicals that most gardeners will recognize from the printing on bags of fertilizer. That's right: Microbes make plant fertilizer right in the soil. This process of stripping the inorganic plant food from organic, carbon-containing compounds and returning it to the soil is called mineralization. Mineralsthe nitrates and phosphates and othersare tiny, usually highly mobile molecules
p.79 that dissolve easily in water. This means that, once the minerals in organic debris are released or fertilizer is poured onto the soil, these mineral nutrients don't hang around long but are easily leached out of soil by rain.
Conventional wisdom has it that plant root are the main imbibers of soil minerals and that plants can only absorb these minerals (fertilizers) if they are in a water-soluble form, but neither premise is true. Roots occupy only a tiny fraction of the soil, so most soil mineralsand most chemical fertilizersnever make direct contact with roots. Unless these isolated, lonely minerals are snapped up by humus or soil organisms, they leach away. It's the humus and the life in the soil that keep the earth fertile by holding on to nutrients that would otherwise wash out of the soil into streams, lakes, and eventually the ocean.
Agricultural chemists have missed the boat with their soluble fertilizers; they're doing things the hard way by using an engineering approach rather than an ecological one. Yes, plants are quite capable of absorbing the water-soluble minerals in chemical fertilizer. But plants often use only 10 percent of the fertilizer that's applied and rarely more than 50 percent. The rest washes into the groundwater, which is why so many wells in our farmlands are polluted with toxic levels of nitrates.
Applying fertilizer the way nature doestied to organic matteruses far less fertilizer and also saves the energy consumed in producing, shipping and applying it. It also supports a broad assortment of soil life, which widens the base of our living pyramid and enhances rather than reduces biodiversity. In addition, plants get a balanced diet instead of being force-fed and are healthier. It's well documented that plants grown on soil rich in organic matter are more disease- and insect-resistant than plants in carbon-poor soil.
In short, a properly tuned ecological garden rarely needs soluble fertilizers because plants and soil animals can knock nutrients loose from humus and organic debris (or clay, another nutrient storage source) using secretions of mild acid and enzymes. Most of the nutrients in healthy soil are "insoluble yet available," in the words of soil scientist William Albrecht. These nutrients, bound to organic matter or cycling among fast-living microbes,won't' wash out of the soil yet can be gently coaxed loose or traded for sugar secretions by roots. And the plants take up only what they need. This turns out to be very little, since plants are 85 percent water, and much of the rest is carbon from the air. A fat half-pound tomato, for example, only draws about 50 milligrams of phosphorus and 500 milligrams of potassium from the soil. That's easy to replace in a humus-rich garden that uses mulches, composts, and nutrient-accumulating plants.
A Question of Balance
Sometimes gardening books single out soil organisms as bad guysthey supposedly "lock up" nutrients, making them unavailable for plants. In an imbalanced soil, this is true. Soil life is much more mobile than plants and has a speedier metabolism. When hungry, microbes can grab nutrients faster than roots. As William Albrecht says, "Microbes dine at the first table." If the soil life is starved by poor soil, microbes certainly won't pass on any food to plants.
For example, a common soil problem is too little nitrogen. Nitrogen is used in proteins and cell membranes, and plants lacking this nutrient are pale and anemic. Gardeners are often admonished not to use wood shavings or straw as a soil amendment because they lead to nitrogen deficiency. This is because shavings and straw, though good sources of carbon, are very low in nitrogen (see Table 4-1). These nitrogen-poor amendments are fine for use as mulch, on top of the soil, but when they are mixed into the soil with a spade or tiller, decomposer organisms, which need a balanced diet
p.80 of about twenty to thirty parts carbon for each part nitrogen, go on a carbon-fueled rampage. It's analogous to the whopping metabolic rush that a big dose of sugar can give you: a great short-term blast, but one that depletes other nutrients and leaves you drained.
To balance this straw-powered carbon feast, soil life grabs every bit of available nitrogen, eating, breeding, and growing as fast as the low levels of this nutrient will allow. The ample but imbalanced food triggers a population explosion among the microbes. Soon the secondary and tertiary decomposers (beetles, spiders, ants), spurred by a surge in their prey, are also breeding like fury. Whenever any valuable nitrogen is released in the form of dead bodies or waste, some tiny, hungry critter instantly consumes it before plants can. The plant roots lose out because the microbes dine at the first table. This madly racing but lopsided feeding frenzy won't diminish until the overabundant carbon is either consumed or balanced by imports of nitrogenfrom the air via bacteria that pull nitrogen from the air, from animal manure, or from an observant gardener with a bag of blood meal.
The same lockups occur when other nutrients are lacking in the soil. Until the soil life is properly fed, the plants can't eat. Conventional farming gets around this problem by flooding- the soil with inorganic fertilizer, ten times what the plants can consume. But this, the engineer's approach rather than the biologist's, creates water pollution and problem-prone plants. The soil life, and the soil itself, suffers from the imbalance.
Here's what happens to soil life after overzealous application of chemical fertilizer. Mixing inorganic fertilizer with soil creates a surplus of mineral nutrients (an excess is always needed, since so much washes away). Now the food in short supply is carbon. Once again, the soil life roars into a feeding frenzy, spurred by the more-than-ample nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in typical
p.81 NPK fertilizers. Since organisms need about twenty parts carbon for every one of nitrogen, it isn't long before any available carbon is pulled from the soil's organic matter to match all that nitrogen and tied up in living bodies. These organisms exhale carbon dioxide, so a proportion of carbon is lost with each generation. First the easily digestible organic matter is eaten, then, more slowly, the humus. Eventually nearly all the soil's carbon is gone (chemically fed soils are notoriously poor in organic matter), and the soil life, starved of this essential food, begins to die. Species of soil organisms that can't survive the shortages go extinct locally. Some of these creatures may play critical roles, perhaps secreting antibiotics to protect plants, or transferring an essential nutrient, or breaking down an otherwise inedible compound. With important links missing, the soil life falls far out of balance. Natural predators begin to die off, so some of their prey organisms, no longer kept in check in this torn food web, surge in numbers and become pests.
Sadly, many of the creatures that remain after this mineral overdose are those that have learned to survive on the one remaining source of carbon: your plants. Burning carbon out of the soil with chemical fertilizers can actually select for disease organisms. All manner of chomping, sucking, mildewing, blackening, spotting horrors descend on the vegetation. With the natural controls gone and disease ravishing every green thing, humans must step in with sprays. But the now-destructive organisms have what they need to thrivethe food and shelter of garden plantsand they will breed whenever the now-essential human intervention diminishes. The gardener is locked on a chemical treadmill. It's a losing battle, reflected in the fact that we use twenty times the pesticides we di d fifty years ago, yet crop losses to insects and disease have doubled, according to USDA statistics.
The other harm done by injudicious use of chemical fertilizers is to the soil itself. As organic matter is burned up by wildly feeding soil life, the soil loses its ability to hold water and air. Its tilth is destroyed. The desperate soil life feeds on the humus itself, the food of last resort. With humus and all other organic matter gone, the soil loses its fluffy, friable structure and collapses. Clayey soil compacts to concrete; silty soil desiccates to dust and blows away.
In contrast, ample soil life boosts both the soil structure and the health of your plants. When the soil food web is chock-full of diversity, diseases are held in check. If a bacterial blight begins to bloom, a balanced supply of predators grazes this food surplus back into line. When a fungal disease threatens, microbial and insect denizens are there to capitalize on this new supply of their favorite food.
Living soil is the foundation of a healthy garden.
To Till or Not to Till
We've seen that organic matter keeps soil light and fluffy and easy for roots to penetrate. What then about the mechanical methods used for breaking up soil?
The invention of the plow ranks as one of the great steps forward for humanity. Farmers know that plowing releases locked-up soil fertility. Plowing also keeps down weeds and thoroughly mingles surface litter with the soil. We do all this, too, when we drag our power-tiller out of the garage and push the snorting beast through the garden beds in a cloud of blue smoke.
What's really happening during tilling? By churning the soil, we're flushing it with fresh air. All that oxygen invigorates the soil life, which zooms into action, breaking down organic matter and plucking minerals from humus and rock particles. Tilling also breaks up the soil, greatly increasing its surface area by creating many small clumps out of big ones. Soil microbes then colonize these fresh surfaces, extracting more nutrients and exploding in population.
p.82 This is great for the first season. The blast of nutrients fuels stunning plant growth, and the harvest is bountiful. But the life in tilled soil releases far more nutrients than the plants can use. Unused fertility leaches away in rains. The next year's tilling burns up more organic matter, again releasing a surfeit of fertility that is washed away. After a few seasons, the soil is depleted. The humus is gone, the mineral ores are played out, and the artificially stimulated soil life is impoverished. Now the gardener must renew the soil with bales of organic matter, fertilizer, and plenty of work.
Thus, tilling releases far more nutrients than plants can use. Also, the constant mechanical battering destroys the soil structure, especially when perpetrated on too-wet soil (and we're all impatient to get those seeds in, so this happens often). Frequent tilling smashes loamy soil crumbs to powder and compacts clayey clods into hardpan. And one tilling session consumes far more calories of energy than are in a year's worth of garden grown food. That's not a sustainable arrangement.
Better to let humus fluff your soil naturally and to use mulches to smother weeds and renew nutrients. Instead of unleashing fertility at a breakneck, mechanical pace, we can allow plant roots to do the job. Questing roots will split nuggets of earth in their own time, opening the soil to microbial colonization, loosening- nutrients at just the right rate. Once again, nature makes a better partner than a slave.
Building Soil Life
OK, enough theory: Let's get our hands dirty. What are some techniques for creating the kind of soil that gardeners dream of? To answer, I could end this chapter now with three little words: Add organic matter.
But I won't stop there. Techniques abound for building soil organic matter, and different situations call for different methods. The techniques break down into three broad categories: composts, mulches, and cover crops.
Compost: The Quick and Dirty Method of Building Soil
Most gardeners know the value of compost, and many excellent books and articles have been writ- ten about this "black gold," so I won't spend too much time recapitulating what's already out there. In brief, compost, the rich, humus-y end product of decomposition, is made by piling surplus organic matter into a mound or bin and letting it rot.
All homeowners generate excess organic matter:
kitchen scraps, grass clippings, leaf piles, and debris from pruning and cleaning up a yardful of plants. Most of this can be recycled right on site and turned into a valuable source of soil life and nutrients for your plants. If you're not fussy, simply piling this stuff in a corner in your yard and waiting a few months is enough to generate compost. But the job can be done much more efficiently. The critical elements of a good compost pile are the right ratio of carbon to nitrogen, optimum moisture and air, and proper size.
Let's take size first. Chomping, multiplying microbes give otf heat, which accelerates their growth and thus the breakdown of the pile's contents. But, just as important, a hot compost pile will sterilize the seeds in yard waste. Piles smaller than about three feet on a side won't insulate the ;
burgeoning microbe population enough to raise ^ the temperature to the critical 130 to 150 degrees Fahrenheit necessary to kill seeds. Spreading cold- processed compost on the garden imports a host of weeds and other unwanted plants. I've seen tomato seedlings pop up by the hundreds in a flower bed after the addition of poorly prepared compost. Thus, composters should save up their materials until they have enough for a three-foot heap.
p.83 What to put in the pile? Different ingredients contain varying ratios of carbon to nitrogen, and although eventually almost anything organic will decompose, an overall C:N ratio of 30:1 is ideal. Table 4^ 1 gives the C:N ratios of many compostable materials. If you are the meticulous type, you can calculate a proper balance of high-carbon and high-nitrogen ingredients to yield 30:1. But for the less assiduous, here's a good rule of thumb: Green materials, such as grass clippings and fresh plant trimmings (and we'll also include kitchen waste here), are high in nitrogen. Brown items, such as dried leaves, hay, straw, and wood shavings, are high in carbon. The exception here is manure, which, although brown, is high in nitrogenconsider it green. Mixing roughly half green with half brown approximates the ideal 30:1 C:N ratio. If high- nitrogen materials are scarce, sprinkle in some cottonseed, fish, or blood meal for balance.
When building the pile, add the materials in layers no more than six inches thick. For a small pile, just jumble everything together by turning. Some gardeners suggest adding soil to the pile, which I sometimes do if the soil isn't sticky clay. I also add handfals of finished compost as I build the heap, which inoculates the pile with soil life and gives it a boost. When I'm feeling especially fanati- cal, I do two things. One is to inoculate the new pile with compost from another young pile if I have one, figuring that the species of soil organisms I'm transferring will be suited to the fresh pile's undi- gested debris. I'll also trek into the woods, into a field, to a pond margina variety of ecosystems where I'll grab a quart or two of soil from each and add the blend. That way I'm maximizing the biodi- versity of my soil life, importing helpful predators and decomposers.
The life of the compost heap needs water to ' survive. A good compost pile should be about as moist as a wrung-out sponge. If the ingredients are dry when the pile is assembled, it can take an
astonishing amount of water to achieve the right moisture level. When I'm building a pile in August, I usually have a hose spraying on the pile the entire time I'm forking the dry debris in place (this is an excellent use for graywater, whose nutrient load gives the soil life an extra boost, and it assuages my guilt about using so much water). I usually cover the finished pile with a tarp or permanent lid to retain moisture on sunny days and keep rain from leaching out the hard-won nutrients.
One age-old compost question is, To turn or not to turn? Turning a pile supplies oxygen and speeds up decomposition. If you're in a hurry for compost, turn the pile as soon as the pile's initial blast of internal heatwhich begins within days of a pile's creationbegins to subside. This will restoke the metabolic fires of the pile's occupants with oxygen, and the compost will quickly heat up again. Each time the pile cools, turn it again. A properly made pile can be reduced to black gold in three weeks by well-timed turning.
However, I suggest that you plan ahead so that you'll have an ample supply of compost when you need it without turning a pile more than once or twice. That's enough to incorporate and rot down the outer layers of the pile.
Here's why. A less-turned pile won't rot down as quickly as a more ambitiously forked one, but each turning amps up microbial metabolism enor- mously. This drives the pile's contents farther down the two-forked road of folly digested humus and totally mineralized nutrients. Mineralized nutri- ents can leach out of soil very quickly. Completely processed humus, while great for soil texture and drought resistance, won't feed as much soil life as less-digested organic matter. A slowly rotted compost, from my experience, still gets hot enough during that first heating-up to kill weed seeds, but it seems to supply my plants with nutrients longer than the product of rapid turnings. -----
Teaming with Microbes: A Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis (Amazon.com product link shortened) /ref=pd_bbs_sr_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid06815176&sr=1-1
Chapter 1 What Is the Soil Food Web and Why Should Gardeners Care?
GIVEN ITS VITAL IMPORTANCE to our hobby, it is amazing that most of us don't venture beyond the understanding that good soil supports plant life, and poor soil doesn't. You've undoubtedly seen worms in good soil, and unless you habitually use pesticides, you should have come across other soil life: centipedes, springtails, ants, slugs, ladybird beetle larvae, and more. Most of this life is on the surface, in the first 4 inches (10 centimeters); some soil microbes have even been discovered living comfortably an incredible two miles beneath the surface. Good soil, however, is not just a few animals. Good soil is absolutely teeming with life, yet seldom does the realization that this is so engender a reaction of satisfaction.
In addition to all the living organisms you can see in garden soils (for ex- ample, there are up to 50 earthworms in a square foot [0.09 square meters] of good soil), there is a whole world of soil organisms that you cannot see unless you use sophisticated and expensive optics. Only then do the tiny, microscopic organismsbacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodesappear, and in numbers that are nothing less than staggering. A mere teaspoon of good garden soil, as measured by microbial geneticists, contains a billion invisible bacteria, several yards of equally invisible fungal hyphae, several thousand protozoa, and a few dozen nematodes.
The common denominator of all soil life is that every organism needs energy to survive. While a few bacteria, known as chemosynthesizers, derive energy from sulfur, nitrogen, or even iron compounds, the rest have to eat something containing carbon in order to get the energy they need to sustain life. Carbon may come from organic material supplied by plants, waste prod- ucts produced by other organisms, or the bodies of other organisms. The first order of business of all soil life is obtaining carbon to fuel metabolismit is an eat-and-be-eaten world, in and on soil.
Do you remember the children's song about an old lady who accidentally swallowed a fly? She then swallows a spider (that wriggled and jiggled and tickled inside her") to catch the fly, and then a bird to catch the spider, and so on, until she eats a horse and dies (Of course!"). If you made a diagram of who was expected to eat whom, starting with the fly and ending with the improbable horse, you would have what is known as a food chain.
Most organisms eat more than one kind of prey, so if you make a diagram of who eats whom in and on the soil, the straight-line food chain instead becomes a series of food chains linked and cross-linked to each other, creating a web of food chains, or a soil food web. Each soil environment has a different set of organisms and thus a different soil food web. This is the simple, graphical definition of a soil food web, though as you can imagine, this and other diagrams represent complex and highly organized sets of interactions, relationships, and chemical and physical processes. The story each tells, however, is a simple one and always starts with the plant.
Plants are in control
Most gardeners think of plants as only taking up nutrients through root systems and feeding the leaves. Few realize that a great deal of the energy that results from photosynthesis in the leaves is actually used by plants to produce chemicals they secrete through their roots. These secretions are known as exudates. A good analogy is perspiration, a human's exudate.
Root exudates are in the form of carbohydrates (including sugars) and proteins. Amazingly, their presence wakes up, attracts, and grows specific beneficial bacteria and fungi living in the soil that subsist on these exudates and the cellular material sloughed off as the plant's root tips grow. All this secretion of exudates and sloughing-off of cells takes place in the rhizosphere, a zone immediately around the roots, extending out about a tenth of an inch, or a couple of millimeters (1 millimeter = 1/25 inch). The rhizosphere, which can look like a jelly or jam under the electron microscope, contains a constantly changing mix of soil organisms, including bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, and even larger organisms. All this life" competes for the exudates in the rhizosphere, or its water or mineral content.
At the bottom of the soil food web are bacteria and fungi, which are attracted to and consume plant root exudates. In turn, they attract and are eaten by bigger microbes, specifically nematodes and protozoa (remember the amoebae, paramecia, flagellates, and ciliates you should have studied in biology?), who eat bacteria and fungi (primarily for carbon) to fuel their metabolic functions. Anything they don't need is excreted as wastes, which plant roots are readily able to absorb as nutrients. How convenient that this production of plant nutrients takes place right in the rhizosphere, the site of root-nutrient absorption.
At the center of any viable soil food web are plants. Plants control the food web for their own benefit, an amazing fact that is too little understood and surely not appreciated by gardeners who are constantly interfering with Nature's system. Studies indicate that individual plants can control the numbers and the different kinds of fungi and bacteria attracted to the rhizosphere by the exudates they produce. During different times of the growing season, populations of rhizosphere bacteria and fungi wax and wane, depending on the nutrient needs of the plant and the exudates it produces.
Soil bacteria and fungi are like small bags of fertilizer, retaining in their bodies nitrogen and other nutrients they gain from root exudates and other organic matter (such as those sloughed-off root-tip cells). Carrying on the analogy, soil protozoa and nematodes act as fertilizer spreaders" by releasing , the nutrients locked up in the bacteria and fungi fertilizer bags." The nematodes and protozoa in the soil come along and eat the bacteria and fungi in the, rhizosphere. They digest what they need to survive and excrete excess carbon and other nutrients as waste.
Left to their own devices, then, plants produce exudates that attract fungi and bacteria (and, ultimately, nematodes and protozoa); their survival depends on the interplay between these microbes. It is a completely natural system, the very same one that has fueled plants since they evolved. Soil life provides the nutrients needed for plant life, and plants initiate and fuel the cycle by producing exudates.
Soil life creates soil structure
The protozoa and nematodes that feasted on the fungi and bacteria attracted by plant exudates are in turn eaten by arthropods (animals with segmented bodies, jointed appendages, and a hard outer covering called an exoskeleton). Insects, spiders, even shrimp and lobsters are arthropods. Soil arthropods eat each other and themselves are the food of snakes, birds, moles, and other animals. Simply put, the soil is one big fast-food restaurant. In the course of all this eating, members of a soil food web move about in search of prey or protection, and while they do, they have an impact on the soil.
Bacteria are so small they need to stick to things, or they will wash away; to attach themselves, they produce a slime, the secondary result of which is that individual soil particles are bound together (if the concept is hard to grasp, think of the plaque produced overnight in your mouth, which enables mouth bacteria to stick to your teeth). Fungal hyphae, too, travel through soil particles, sticking to them and binding them together, thread-like, into aggregates.
Worms, together with insect larvae and moles and other burrowing animals, move through the soil in search of food and protection, creating path-ways that allow air and water to enter and leave the soil. Even microscopic fungi can help in this regard (see chapter 4). The soil food web, then, in addition to providing nutrients to roots in the rhizosphere, also helps create soil structure: the activities of its members bind soil particles together even as they provide for the passage of air and water through the soil.
Soil life produces soil nutrients
When any member of a soil food web dies, it becomes fodder for other members of the community. The nutrients in these bodies are passed on to other members of the community. A larger predator may eat them alive, or they may be decayed after they die. One way or the other, fungi and bacteria get involved, be it decaying the organism directly or working on the dung of the successful eater. It makes no difference. Nutrients are preserved and eventually are retained in the bodies of even the smallest fungi and bacteria. When these are in the rhizosphere, they release nutrients in plant-available form when they, in turn, are consumed or die.
Without this system, most important nutrients would drain from soil. Instead, they are retained in the bodies of soil life. Here is the gardener's truth: when you apply a chemical fertilizer, a tiny bit hits the rhizosphere, where it is absorbed, but most of it continues to drain through soil until it hits the water table. Not so with the nutrients locked up inside soil organisms, a state known as immobilization; these nutrients are eventually released as wastes, or mineralized. And when the plants themselves die and are allowed to decay, the nutrients they retained are again immobilized in the fungi and bacteria that consume them.
The nutrient supply in the soil is influenced by soil life in other ways. For example, worms pull organic matter into the soil, where it is shredded by beetles and the larvae of other insects, opening it up for fungal and bacterial decay. This worm activity provides yet more nutrients for the soil community.
Healthy soil food webs control disease
A healthy food web is one that is not being destroyed by pathogenic and disease-causing organisms. Not all soil organisms are beneficial, after all. As gardeners you know that pathogenic soil bacteria and fungi cause many plain diseases. Healthy soil food webs not only have tremendous numbers of individual organisms but a great diversity of organisms. Remember that teaspoon of good garden soil? Perhaps 20,000 to 30,000 different species make up its billion bacteriaa healthy population in numbers and diversity. A large and diverse community controls troublemakers. A good analogy is a thief in a crowded market: if there are enough people around, they will catch or even stop the thief (and it is in their self-interest to do so). If the market is deserted, however, the thief will be successful, just as he will be if he is stronger, faster, or in some other way better adapted than those that would be in pursuit.
In the soil food web world, the good guys don't usually catch thieves (though it happens: witness the hapless nematode that started this all for us); rather, they compete with them for exudates and other nutrients, air, water, and even space. If the soil food web is a healthy one, this competition keeps the pathogens in check; they may even be outcompeted to their death.
Just as important, every member of the soil food web has its place in the soil community. Each, be it on the surface or subsurface, plays a specific role. Elimination of even just one group can drastically alter a soil community. Birds participate by spreading protozoa carried on their feet or dropping a worm taken from one area into another. Too many cats, and things will change. Dung from mammals provides nutrients for beetles in the soil. Kill the mammals, or eliminate their habitat or food source (which amounts to the same thing), and you won't have as many beetles. It works in the reverse as well. A healthy soil food web won't allow one set of members to get so strong as to destroy the web. If there are too many nematodes and protozoa, the bacteria and fungi on which they prey are in trouble and, ultimately, so are the plants in the area.
And there are other benefits. The nets or webs fungi form around roots act as physical barriers to invasion and protect plants from pathogenic fungi and bacteria. Bacteria coat surfaces so thoroughly, there is no room for others to attach themselves. If something impacts these fungi or bacteria and their numbers drop or they disappear, the plant can easily be attacked.
Special soil fungi, called mycorrhizal fungi, establish themselves in a symbiotic relationship with roots, providing them not only with-physical protection but with nutrient delivery as well. In return for exudates, these fungi provide water, phosphorus, and other necessary plant nutrients. Soil food web populations must be in balance, or these fungi are eaten and the plant suffers.
Bacteria produce exudates of their own, and the slime they use to attach to surfaces traps pathogens. Sometimes, bacteria work in conjunction with fungi to form protective layers, not only around roots in the rhizosphere but on an equivalent area around leaf surfaces, the phyllosphere. Leaves produce exudates that attract microorganisms in exactly the same way roots do; these act as a barrier to invasion, preventing disease-causing organisms from entering the plant's system.
Some fungi and bacteria produce inhibitory compounds, things like vitamins and antibiotics, which help maintain or improve plant health; penicillin and streptomycin, for example, are produced by a soil-borne fungus and a soil-borne bacterium, respectively.
All nitrogen is not the same
Ultimately, from the plant's perspective anyhow, the role of the soil food web is to cycle down nutrients until they become temporarily immobilized in the bodies of bacteria and fungi and then mineralized. The most important of these nutrients is nitrogenthe basic building block of amino acids and, therefore, life. The biomass of fungi and bacteria (that is, the total amount of each in the soil) determines, for the most part, the amount of nitrogen that is readily available for plant use.
It wasn't until the 1980s that soil scientists could accurately measure the amount of bacteria and fungi in soils. Dr. Elaine Ingham at Oregon State University along with others started publishing research that showed the ratio of these two organisms in various types of soil. In general, the least disturbed soils (those that supported old growth timber) had far more fungi than bacteria, while disturbed soils (rototilled soil, for example) had far more bacteria than fungi. These and later studies show that agricultural soils have a fungal to bacterial biomass (F:B ratio) of 1:1 or less, while forest soils have ten times or more fungi than bacteria.
Ingham and some of her graduate students at OSU also noticed a correlation between plants and their preference for soils that were fungally dominated versus those that were bacterially dominated or neutral. Since the path from bacterial to fungal domination in soils follows the general course of plant succession, it became easy to predict what type of soil particular plants preferred by noting where they came from. In general, perennials, trees, and shrubs prefer fungally dominated soils, while annuals, grasses, and vegetables prefer soils dominated by bacteria.
One implication of these findings, for the gardener, has to do with the nitrogen in bacteria and fungi. Remember, this is what the soil food web means to a plant: when these organisms are eaten, some of the nitrogen is retained by the eater, but much of it is released as waste in the form of plant-available ammonium (NH3). Depending on the soil environment, this can either remain as ammonium or be converted into nitrate (NO3,) by special bacteria. When does this conversion occur? When ammonium is released in soils that are dominated by bacteria. This is because such soils generally have an alkaline pH (thanks to bacterial bioslime), which encourages the nitrogen-fixing bacteria to thrive. The acids produced by fungi, as they begin to dominate, lower the pH and greatly reduce the amount of these bacteria. In fungally dominated soils, much of the nitrogen remains in ammonium form.
Ah, here is the rub: chemical fertilizers provide plants with nitrogen, but most do so in the form of nitrates (NO3). An understanding of the soil food web makes it clear, however, that plants that prefer fungally dominated soils ultimately won't flourish on a diet of nitrates. Knowing this can make a great deal of difference in the way you manage your gardens and yard. If you can cause either fungi or bacteria to dominate, or provide an equal mix (and you canjust how is explained in Part 2), then plants can get the kind of nitrogen they prefer, without chemicals, and thrive.
Negative impacts on the soil food web
Chemical fertilizers negatively impact the soil food web by killing off entire portions of it. What gardener hasn't seen what table salt does to a slug? Fertilizers are salts; they suck the water out of the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and nematodes in the soil. Since these microbes are at the very foundation of the soil food web nutrient system, you have to keep adding fertilizer once you start using it regularly. The microbiology is missing and not there to do its job, feeding the plants.
It makes sense that once the bacteria, fungi, nematodes, and protozoa are gone, other members of the food web disappear as well. Earthworms, for example, lacking food and irritated by the synthetic nitrates in soluble nitrogen fertilizers, move out. Since they are major shredders of organic material, their absence is a great loss. Without the activity and diversity of a healthy food web, you not only impact the nutrient system but all the other things a healthy soil food web brings. Soil structure deteriorates, watering can become problematic," pathogens and pests establish themselves and, worst of all, gardening becomes a lot more work than it needs to be.
If the salt-based chemical fertilizers don't kill portions of the soil food web, rototilling will. This gardening rite of spring breaks up fungal hyphae, decimates worms, and rips and crushes arthropods. It destroys soil structure and eventually saps soil of necessary air. Again, this means more work for you in the end. Air pollution, pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides, too, kill off important members of the food web community or chase" them away. Any chain is only as strong as its weakest link: if there is a gap in the soil food web, the system will break down and stop functioning properly.
Healthy soil food webs benefit you and your plants
Why should a gardener be knowledgeable about how soils and soil food webs work? Because then you can manage them so they work for you and your plants. By using techniques that employ soil food web science as you garden, you can at least reduce and at best eliminate the need for fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides (and a lot of accompanying work). You can improve degraded soils and return them to usefulness. Soils will retain nutrients in the bodies of soil food web organisms instead of letting them leach out to God knows where. Your plants will be getting nutrients in the form each particular plant wants and needs so they will be less stressed. You will have natural disease prevention, protection, and suppression. Your soils will hold more water.
The organisms in the soil food web will do most of the work of maintaining plant health. Billions of living organisms will be continuously at work throughout the year, doing the heavy chores, providing nutrients to plants, building defense systems against pests and diseases, loosening soil and increasing drainage, providing necessary pathways for oxygen and carbon dioxide. You won't have to do these things yourself.
Gardening with the soil food web is easy, but you must get the life back in your soils. First, however, you have to know something about the soil in which the soil food web operates; second, you need to know what each of the key members of the food web community does. Both these concerns are taken up in the rest of Part 1.
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<http://www.puyallup.wsu.edu/~Linda%20Chalker-Scott/Horticultural%20Myths _files/Myths/Compost%20overdose.pdf>
Ideal soils, from a fertility standpoint, are generally defined as containing no more than 5% OM by weight or 10% by volume
Before you add organic amendments to your garden, have your soil tested to determine its OM content and nutrient levels
Be conservative with organic amendments; add only what is necessary to correct deficiencies and maintain OM at ideal levels
Do not incorporate organic amendments into landscapes destined for permanent installations; topdress with mulch instead
Abnormally high levels of nutrients can have negative effects on plant and soil health
Any nutrients not immediately utilized by microbes or plants contribute to non-point source pollution
--

<http://www.composting101.com/c-n-ratio.html

A Balancing Act (Carbon-to-Nitrogen Ratios)
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My bad, I forgot to mention <http://ourgardengang.tripod.com/lasagna_gardening.htm Lasagna Gardening 101 by Patricia Lanza, author of the Lasagna Gardening Series
Before you buy the first plant, or lay down the first sheet of wet newspaper, take a look around your property. Check to see where you get the best light; that's where you'll put your garden. Decide on the shape and contents of your garden. The size of your plot will determine how much material you need to make your first lasagna. Your material list will change depending on where you live. Some folks have more leaves than others, some have seaweed, others ground cornstalks or apple pulp. Some of the lucky ones have access to animal manure. There's no hard and fast rules about what to use for your layers, just so long as it's organic and doesn't contain any protein (fat, meat, or bone). Before I go any further, let me just say that the basics of making garden lasagnas are simple: Don't remove the sod or do any extra work, like removing weeds or rocks. Mark the area for your garden using a water hose or a long rope to get the desired shape. Cover the area you've marked with wet newspapers, overlapping the edges (5 or more sheets per layer). Cover the paper with one to two inches of peat moss or other organic material. Layer several inches of organic material on top of the peat moss. Continue to alternate layers of peat moss and organic material, until desired thickness is reached. Water until the garden is the consistency of a damp sponge. Plant, plant, plant and mulch, mulch, mulch.
Start with layers of newspaper or sheets of cardboard. Then cover with mulch. You need less loose material to plant in than you might think. In the spring of '98, I layered an area where a dog pen had stood for years. The property belongs to a 79-year-old man who was upset about his inability to garden as he once had. Until recently, a 100-year-old white pine tree had occupied the center of the fenced-in area. But its roots had begun to do real damage to my friend's house and surrounding properties, and so the tree had to be taken down. Once the tree was removed, the area was bright and sunny, but, unfortunately, the ground contained 100 years worth of layered pine needles.
First, we covered the area with lime, then laid whole sections of wet newspaper on top of the pine needles and covered the paper with peat moss. We bought a small truckload of barn litter mixed with our local clay soil and covered the peat with two inches of this mix and then two more inches of peat moss. Additions of one to two inches of grass clippings, two inches of peat moss, one to two inches of compost, and more peat gave us a total of about six to eight inches to plant in.
We pulled the layers apart and planted 31 tomato plants, four squash, six cucumber, four basil, two rosemary, four parsley, and twelve cosmos. It was a jungle, but with staking, pruning, and tying, the garden produced so much fruit that the entire neighborhood helped eat the harvest, and the cosmos were so beautiful they took our breath away.
Once the harvest was finished, I pulled the stems and disturbed the layers for the first time. Pieces of the paper layer came up with the roots. So, too, did the biggest earthworms you can imagine. The soil was still probably a bit acidic, but it will get better in time.
To prepare the new garden for another year of planting, we spread the contents of a large composter onto the space, and the garden took on several inches in height. The last mowing of grass provided enough clippings to add another few inches. When the fall came, we mowed the leaves for a top dressing of four inches of chipped leaves. I love an edged garden and so the last thing I did was cut a sharp, clean border around the sides, throwing the edging material up onto the garden, with grass side down, for another layer of more good dirt. It looked beautiful!
Close planting and mulching greatly reduced the amount of weeds in the dog-pen garden, as they do in all my gardens. It also meant less watering, since the paper and mulch kept the soil around the root zone cool. Even though we pushed it a bit by planting 31 tomato plants, the staking, tying, and pruning, in addition to close planting, created a healthy growing environment, with few garden pests. It was another test, and the results have left my friend confident that, as he enters his 80th year, he will be able to continue gardening with the lasagna method.
Indeed, lasagna gardening is so simple that the hardest part may be getting started. I suggest beginning with that walk around your property to determine what you can do with what you have. If you get lots of shade, plant a shade garden or cut some tree limbs. Track the light for a couple of days during the spring and summer. You probably have more light than you think--not sun, but light. Lots of rocks? Try rock gardening. You might learn to love the wonderful world of small plants that thrive in rocky terrain. Too little space? Look again. If there's a foot of space, you can plant in it.
There's no such thing as work-free gardening, but the lasagna method is close. Once you train yourself to think layering, and learn to stockpile your ingredients, you will work less each year. Following are some of my favorite vegetables, along with tips on how I grow them the lasagna way:
ASPARAGUS Many gardeners shy away from this tasty crop, mainly because it's difficult to grow through traditional means. Not so with lasagna gardening. I still remember the first year I planned my asparagus patch. Turned out to be one of my best vegetable trials yet. For fun, I grew a tray of plants from seed, started indoors in February. In early spring, I added the small seedlings to the assembly of roots--one, two, and three years old--that I had accumulated to plant together.
Using a mattock blade, I scraped a shallow opening in a newly made lasagna bed, an inch or two deep. I combined the roots and seedlings in the opening and covered them with a sifting of soil and peat moss. Once the roots were planted, I covered the top of the row with a mixture of manure and peat moss.
As the roots sprouted and grew, I added sifted compost and grass clippings. In the fall, I added more manure and a thick layer of chipped leaves for winter mulch. During the first spring, I watched the asparagus emerge and grow. I invited inn guests into the garden to help me cut and eat the first tender stalks. Then I mulched, mulched, then mulched some more. The second spring, I cut so much asparagus we had some to freeze. It was all so easy: plant, mulch, harvest, and enjoy.
Site and soil. A heavy feeder, asparagus needs well-drained soil and at least six hours of sun. The fall before planting, build a lasagna garden on the site you've chosen for your asparagus, using a base of newspaper topped with 18 to 24 inches of layered organic material. By spring, the lasagna bed will have composted to ideal soil conditions for asparagus.
Planting and harvest. The time is right when the soil is thawed and crumbles in your hand. Plant in rows two feet apart in two shallow trenches, with a rise in between. This lets the crowns sit on top of the rise, with the roots in the trenches. Plants should be 18 inches apart and covered with two to three inches of soil and compost mixture.
As the plants grow during the summer, continue covering with the compost enriched mixture until crowns are four inches deep. In the fall, cover the entire bed with a blanket of eight to ten inches of chopped leaves or other organic mulch. Each spring, feed the bed compost enriched with manure. In colder regions, pull the mulch back on half the bed to get an extra early harvest, saving half the bed for later harvesting. Once the harvest is over, the remaining shoots expand into ferny top growth. When the ferns turn bronze, cut them back.
BEANS I usually wind up planting many more beans than I actually need. But with so many varieties--all so much fun to grow--who can resist! Once the last chance of frost is past, plant your favorite bean seeds. Divide your seeds into thirds and plant every two weeks for a longer harvest.
Once I have a lasagna bed in place, I plant bush bean seeds along the edges. They only need a few inches, since the plants will lean out over the sides of the garden, leaving room for taller crops. I plant pole bean seeds around the base of teepees made from six-foot bamboo poles. Plant seeds around the base of each pole, and when they start to climb, give them a boost up the trailing twine you have tied from the top.
Site and soil. Beans grow best in well-drained soil that's high in organic matter. A new or established lasagna bed in full sun works best for all types.
Planting and harvest. Fix supports in place before planting pole bean seeds. For both types, pole and bush, just push the seeds into loose soil about two inches apart. Cover the seeds and press the soil around them for direct contact.
Keep the soil evenly moist until seeds emerge, then cover the soil with a good mulch to keep the soil cool, the leaves clean, and the garden weed-free. To avoid rust, don't work beans when foliage is wet. Once beans start to appear, keep crop picked to encourage new bloom. Rotate crops every year to avoid pests and disease.
CUCUMBERS Bush cucumbers can be grown in small spaces and containers. Climbing cucumbers need strong support, so plant close to a fence or trellis. I like the climbers and try to see what kind of new supports I can come up with each year to make the garden more interesting. I loved the string cradles we tied to a stockade fence one year. The vines grew up strings hanging down into the row, then up the string cradles and onto the fence.
Site and soil. Cucumbers need good drainage and rich soil. Lasagna gardens are just the thing, when enriched with fresh manure. However, wait three years before planting in the same place to avoid pests and disease.
Planting and harvest. Wait until the last frost is past, then plant prestarted seeds covered with floating row cover in colder regions, and seeds sown directly in the garden in milder climates. Keep mulched and don't till, as cucumbers are shallow rooted. Maintaining at least six inches of mulch at all times keeps the roots cool and moist, but they still need an inch of water each week. Pick the fruit when it's small and most flavorful. Once the harvest starts, don't miss a day, or you'll have candidates for the compost pile instead of the salad bowl.
GARLIC If you've never tried growing garlic, you've missed something special. I make a rich lasagna bed, let it cook for four to six weeks under black plastic, set strings up to keep my rows straight, and push in single cloves just enough to see they are covered. When the foliage is full and seed heads form, I cut and use them just as I would cloves. When the foliage turns yellow or brown, it's time to lift the garlic.
Loosen the earth and gently shake off any dirt. Let the cloves cure by hanging them in a dry place. The individual cloves will each make a head, so you will have plenty to use, as well as to save for next year's seed.
Site and soil. Good drainage, full sun, and plenty of manure-rich compost are best. A well-built lasagna bed has the perfect growing conditions to start, then all you have to do is add grass clippings or chipped leaves for mulch to keep the soil evenly moist and weeds at a minimum.
Planting and harvest. Gardeners in the Northeast and zone 5 and colder climates will get best results from hard-neck garlic planted in the fall and harvested the next summer. Milder climates can grow soft-neck; plant in the spring and harvest that same fall.
If you haven't room for an entire bed just for garlic, plant some in groups of three to five cloves in flower or vegetable beds. Folks who have bug problems swear by the positive effect garlic has on its companions.
LETTUCE Anyone can grow lettuce. The problem is most folks grow too much at one time. Use a little restraint and make successive plantings. Mix lettuce seed with sand so you will not have to do so much thinning. I broadcast a mixture of cut-and-come-again lettuce once a month for the duration of growing time for my zone.
Site and soil. Lettuce likes it cool and so is ideally suited for spring and fall plantings. I use other taller plants to shade my lettuce in summer. It's best to prepare a site for lettuce in the fall, adding a high nitrogen amendment (such as fresh grass clippings) to the top two inches of soil.
Planting and harvest. Lettuce is a fun crop to grow in containers, as borders, and in tiny spaces that would only go to waste otherwise. There's really no safe place to hide when I start looking for places to plant. I've planted Ruby Red and Oakleaf lettuce in my herb and edible flower containers and flower boxes. I interplant herbs and lettuce in the border gardens that surround my antique roses. The Mesculun mixes are wonderful in big terra cotta saucers that stand alone in part shade.
When guests come for dinner, I give them a colander and a pair of scissors and point them toward the garden. They come back with an interesting collection of edibles and never forget the experience. Lots of good gardeners start out by getting their feet dirty in someone else's garden.
POTATOES No need to dig trenches or to hill up. Build a lasagna bed to eliminate grass and weeds, don't use any lime or nitrogen-rich materials (such as grass clippings), lay down one or two sheets of wet newspaper, lay seed potatoes on top of the paper, and cover with spoiled hay or compost. You can use pretty much anything you have that is dried. Chipped leaves are great for covering the tubers. I use hay that is well-cured and lying next to my potato bed, so I don't have to carry it too far.
Site and soil. Potatoes need full sun, good drainage, and can tolerate acid soil. Preparing a lasagna bed and adding bone meal or rock sulfate produces a good harvest and large tubers. Avoid planting potatoes where you have grown them or their relatives (including eggplant, peppers, and tomatoes) for the past three years.
Planting and harvest. Be ready to plant in early to midspring and have enough material to cover the bed with ten inches of mulch. Be prepared to add several inches of cover to the bed as plants grow. The important thing here is to keep the tubers covered so they will not see the light of day. By the end of the growing period, the plants will be propped up with hay or other soil amendments.
Slip your hand under the mulch to harvest a few small potatoes when the beans are ready to pick. Let the rest continue growing until the foliage has yellowed. Don't try to dig! Lift the mulch and pick the clean tubers up off the newspaper.
Be on the watch for potato bugs. Try to catch them when they are small. Sweep across the foliage with a broom. They will fall into the mulch and, when small, not be able to find their way back up to the leaves.
TOMATOES The toughest part of growing tomatoes is choosing the kinds you will grow. You'll likely want to plant several different varieties each year: there's early, midseason, and late ones; tiny pear shaped, cherry, patio, plum, slicing, and cooking varieties; plus, tomatoes for juice and for stuffing, not to mention new types and heritage.
Site and soil. Tomatoes need full sun, an inch of water per week, and protection from the wind. Ideal conditions are a lasagna bed that has been around for at least a year and has not grown any of the relatives: potatoes, eggplant, or other tomatoes.
I prepare my site by installing water jugs buried up to their shoulders between where every two plants will be. A pin hole in the sides facing the plants should let enough seep out to keep up consistent watering. I place a tall stick in each jug, its top colored with red paint or nail polish. This helps me find the sticks, which helps me find the openings to the jugs when all the foliage hides them from view. I fill the jugs with a funnel and the water hose. You can add liquid plant food to the water if you like.
Planting and harvest. Wait until after the last frost, then plant the seedlings. Create a well of soil around the stem to help catch any rain. If you have prepared the lasagna bed in advance, all you will have to do is scrape the soil aside and lay the plant down up to the last four leaves. Press the soil around the plant to make direct contact and push out any air pockets.
Once the jugs and plants are in place, make a collar of one or two sheets of wet newspaper, place it around the stem, and cover the paper with mulch. Depending on the type of tomatoes you have chosen, you will need to stake, tie, prune, and pinch. Keep the water jugs full and check plants regularly for bugs or disease. Don't get impatient; tomatoes need lots of long hot sunny days and warm nights. Again, depending on the cultivar you have chosen to grow, you can look forward to your first harvest in 55 to 100 days after you set the plants out.
And, oh, what a delicious harvest! I love tomatoes warm from the garden--standing over the row, biting into one, the juice running off my chin, dripping from my elbow, the acid tingling my tongue. It just doesn't get any better than that.
--
- Billy
When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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As you mentioned to Dog, you are wrong again, as you often are.
Your continuing education . . .
http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2010/04/29/dont_panic_go_organic
Don't Panic, Go Organic Be not troubled by Robert Paarlberg's scaremongering. Organic practices can feed the world -- better, in fact, than wasteful industrial farming. BY ANNA LAPP | APRIL 29, 2010
In May 2004, Catherine Badgley, an evolutionary biology professor at the University of Michigan, took her students on a research trip to an organic farm near their campus. Standing on the acre-and-a-half farm, Badgley asked the farmer, Rob MacKercher, how much food he produces annually. "Twenty-seven tons," he said. Badgley did the quick math: That's enough to provide 150 families one pound of produce every single day of the year. "If he can grow that quantity on this tiny parcel," Badgley wondered, "why can't organic agriculture feed the world?" That question was the genesis of a multi-year, multidisciplinary study to explore whether we could, indeed, feed the world with organic, sustainable methods of farming. The results? A resounding yes. Unfortunately, you don't hear about this study, or others with similar findings, in "Attention Whole Foods Shoppers," Robert Paarlberg's defense of industrial agriculture in the new issue of Foreign Policy. Instead, organic agriculture, according to Paarlberg, is an "elite preoccupation," a "trendy cause" for "purist circles." Sure, sidling up to a Whole Foods in your Lexus SUV and spending $24.99 on artisan fromage may be the trappings of a privileged foodie, but there's an SUV-sized difference between obsessing about the texture of your goat cheese and arguing for a more sustainable food system. Despite Paarlberg's pronouncements, Badgley's research, along with much more evidence, helps us see that what's best for the planet and for people -- especially small-scale farmers who are the hungriest among us -- is a food system based on agroecological practices. What's more, Paarlberg's impressive-sounding statistics veil the true human and ecological cost we are paying with industrial agriculture.

Since most of us aren't well-versed in the minutia of this debate, we can't be blamed for falling for Paarlberg's scaremongering, which suggests that by rejecting biotech and industrial agriculture, we are keeping developing countries underdeveloped and undernourished. Paarlberg suggests that we could eliminate starvation across the continent of Africa were it not that "efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided ... advocacy against agricultural modernization."
It's a compelling argument, and one industry defenders make all the time. For who among us would want to think we're starving the poor by pushing for sustainability? (At a Biotechnology Industry Organization conference I attended in 2005, a workshop participant even suggested pro-organic advocates should be "tried for crimes against humanity.") But the argument for industrial agriculture and biotechnology is built on a misleading depiction of what organic agriculture is, bolstered with shaky statistics, and constructed by ignoring the on-the-ground lessons of success stories across the globe.
For a start, Paarlberg doesn't get what it means to be organic. "Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals," he writes, "so their food is de facto organic." In contrast, industrial agriculture, as he sees it, is "science-intensive." But as Doug Gurian-Sherman, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists explains, "modern organic practices are defined by much more than just the absence of synthetic chemicals"; it's knowledge-intensive farming. Organic farmers improve output, less by applying purchased products and more by tapping a sophisticated understanding of biological systems to build soil fertility and manage pests and weeds through techniques that include double-dug beds, intercropping, composting, manures, cover crops, crop sequencing, and natural pest control.
Biotech and industrial agriculture would in fact more aptly be called water, chemical, and fossil-fuel-intensive farming, requiring external inputs to boost productivity. Industrial agriculture gobbles up much of the 70 percent of the planet's freshwater resources diverted to farming, for example. It relies on petroleum-based chemicals for pest and weed control and requires massive amounts of synthetic fertilizer. In fact, in 2007, we used 13 million tons of synthetic fertilizer, five times the amount used in 1960. Crop yields, by comparison, grew only half that fast. And it's hardly a harmless increase: Nitrogen fertilizers are the single biggest cause of global-warming gases from U.S. agriculture and a major cause of air and water pollution -- including the creation of dead zones in coastal waters that are devoid of fish. And despite the massive pesticide increase, the United States loses more crops to pests today than it did before the chemical agriculture revolution six decades ago. The diminishing returns of industrial agriculture are one reason why organic agriculture comes out ahead in all the comprehensive comparative studies. In Badgley's study, for instance, data from hundreds of certified-organic, industrial, and low-input farms around the world revealed that introducing agroecological approaches in developing countries led to between two and four times the productivity as the previous practices. Estimating the impact on global food supply if we shifted the planet to organic production, the study authors found a yield increase for every single food category they investigated.
In one of the largest studies to analyze how agroecological practices affect productivity in the developing world, researchers at the University of Essex in England analyzed 286 projects in 57 countries. Among the 12.6 million farmers followed, who were transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, researchers found an average yield increase of 79 percent across a wide variety of crop types. Even the United Nations backs those claims. A 2008 U.N. Conference on Trade and Development report concluded that "organic agriculture can be more conducive to food security in Africa than most conventional production systems, and ... is more likely to be sustainable in the long term."
In the most comprehensive analysis of world agriculture to date, several U.N. agencies and the World Bank engaged more than 400 scientists and development experts from 80 countries over four years to produce the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The conclusion? Our "reliance on resource-extractive industrial agriculture is risky and unsustainable, particularly in the face of worsening climate, energy, and water crises," said Marcia Ishii-Eiteman, a lead author on the report.
Too bad we don't hear these success stories from Paarlberg. Instead he claims that without industrial food systems, "food would be not only less abundant but also less safe." To build his case, he points to improvements in food safety in the United States, such as the drop in E. coli contamination in U.S. beef. He neglects to mention that the virulent form of E. coli, a pathogen that can be fatal in humans, only emerged in the gut of cattle in the 1980s as a direct consequence of industrial livestock factories -- precisely the model he would export overseas. Meanwhile, Paarlberg conveniently ignores the diet-related illnesses spawned by industrial food in the United States, where the health-care system is now crippled with these preventable diseases. Hypertension (high blood pressure), heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes have all been linked in part to diet.
Paarlberg defends his case by pointing to a staggering death toll in Africa where, he claims, 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases compared with only 5,000 in the United States. But he's deceptively comparing apples and oranges: Those U.S. figures are only for food-borne illnesses. And the lack of an industrial food system isn't responsible for most of that high death toll in Africa. The World Health Organization attributes much of this tragic toll to unsanitary drinking water contaminated with pathogens transmitted from human excreta, causing a massive spike in cholera that year. Oh, and pesticide poisoning, too. Yes, that would be pesticides from industrial chemical farming.
Paarlberg's praise for industrial practices is similar to the biotech industry trumpeting its technology for saving us from famine, farmer bankruptcy, blindness, disease, poverty, even loss of biodiversity. Back in 1994, Dan Verakis, a spokesman for the industrial agricultural firm Monsanto, claimed that biotech crops would reduce herbicide and pesticide use, in effect reversing "the Silent Spring scenario." In 1999, Monsanto said it had developed genetically engineered rice to be a vital source of vitamin A, reducing blindness caused by its deficiency. That same year, then Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro boasted that GM technology would trigger an "80 percent reduction in insecticide use in cotton crops alone in the United States."
Few of these promises have borne fruit. Instead, commercialized biotech crops have fostered herbicide-resistant weeds and pesticide-resistant pests, while reducing biodiversity. "In the past, farmers used a variety of chemical controls and manual labor, making it unlikely that any weed plant would evolve a resistance to all those different strategies simultaneously," explains gene ecology expert, Jack Heinemann, another IAASTD author. "But as we oversimplify -- as we industrialize -- we make agriculture more vulnerable to the next problem." Already, examples of herbicide resistance are popping up from canola fields in Canada to farms in Australia.
Another cause for concern is that industrial agriculture and genetically modified crops dangerously reduce biodiversity, especially on the farm. In the United States, 90 percent of soy, 70 percent of corn, and 95 percent of sugarbeets are genetically modified. Industrial farms are by their very nature monocultures, but diverse crops on a farm, even weeds, serve multiple functions: Bees feast on their nectar and pollen, birds munch on weed seeds, worms and other soil invertebrates that help control pests live among them -- the list goes on.
So are farmers in southern Africa, across India, in villages throughout the developing world really waiting for biotech and industrial agriculture to feed them, as Paarlberg suggests? "No," says Sue Edwards, a British-born botanist who works at the Institute for Sustainable Development in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. "Farmers we work with don't hold much hope" for these technologies; they see hope in their fields.
Starting in 1996, Edwards and colleagues engaged smallholder farmers in drought-prone regions in Ethiopia to investigate whether resilient food systems could be fostered by tapping ecological agriculture, building farming skills, emphasizing crops indigenous to the continent that had evolved to be drought resilient. They enlisted farmers in field trials, comparing crops grown using ecological methods like composting with those raised with chemical fertilizer or without any inputs at all. (That'd be what Paarlberg calls "de facto organic.") The results are conclusive: By 2006, they were finding significantly higher yields in the ecological test sites of every single crop compared with the chemical-fertilizer plots and even more dramatic benefits compared with the no-input plots.
Among the pitfalls in Paarlberg's analysis, two stand out. First, the benefits of his approach are speculative, at best; at worst, his assertions are disengenous, based on cherry-picking evidence and misrepresenting data. We need only compare his claims with Edwards's work and similar research around the world that demonstrates that agroecological approaches can protect natural resources and increase yields. Not in five years; not in 20. But right now -- today.
Second, his approach ignores power relationships that ultimately determine who will benefit from any technology. In agroecological approaches, farmers gain knowledge, including knowledge about ways to adapt to changing climate and to share their knowledge with each other. Farmers become less dependent on distant, centralized suppliers of high-priced biotech seeds and chemical inputs and therefore less vulnerable to their notoriously unstable prices. Though perhaps harder to measure, this independence may be the most critical advantages of agroecological farming.
Take away Paarlberg-esque mythologizing -- along with the government handouts, international financial institutional backing, tax breaks, and externalized environmental and human costs that prop up industrial agriculture and biotechnology -- and industrial agriculture would go the way of the Hummer: an overhyped footnote in the history books.
--
- Billy
"Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the
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Sorry, it's pityful.
Baz
You need help. Urgent help.
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Thanks for the advice, but I don't think 2 people giving you information would hurry things up, but since you requested it, I will call on other readers of rec.gardens.edible to add information, redundant or not, to aid in your rehabilitation. Together, we can help you from being obviously stoopid.
Please post again, real soon.
--
- Billy
When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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You're not going to be coy, are you? That's pathetic! Well, if you need any of that explained at a level that you could understand, let me know, and I'll give it a go.
Good Luck,
--
- Billy
When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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Have to hand it to Baz, he is a modest little person, with much to be modest about.
--
- Billy
When you give food to the poor, they call you a saint. When you ask why the
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