Friday, May 14, 2010

From the ground up

Seed Simple

By Lynea Newcomer

A certain 's' word is thrown into our cumulative lingos with increasing urgency these days. Certainly we shout for 'spring,' facing into the fierce winds and whispering coaxing endearments to the nighttime weather gods, trying with all our spirit to engage a true flip of the seasons.

But here I'll note the particular power of 'sustainability.' Jobs, water, businesses, American culture, you name it, the sustainability of these topics is debated from hill hikes to pizza parlors. In the midst of planting spring food crops, sustainability strikes me as an appropriate paradigm with which to approach gardening of all sorts. Just how, exactly, does the earth unceasingly provide beautiful wildflowers, hills of sage and tomatoes that get one fruiting in high-altitude backyards? By means of sustainable life cycles; things die, others live, rain falls, insects pollinate, etc.

Of course, we humans tinker with natural systems, believing we can simply input and extract to meet our perceived needs with quicker genius than Mother Earth's 4.5-billion-year plan to date. Despite reading multiple texts on soil amending, taking Master Gardener classes and growing my food, all I consistently conclude is that there is a heck of a lot more to learn. In a positive interpretation, this realistic thought confirms each of our roles in the earth's infinite cycles; we must learn and relearn just as our ancestors did. With hands in the dirt, and attentive eyes to the details, one grows with the gardening, naturally partnering in sustainable relationships with the landscapes we inhabit.

Start your spring focus with the soil; composed of organic matter, water, air and mineral matter, soil is constantly in flux. The "Idaho Master Gardener Handbook," available for free online and created through the University of Idaho Extension, hits all the main ideas in Chapter 5 (See Attend a soil class to get hands-on experience, and use this resource as your next best teacher, available at your leisure. Regardless of whether you choose to get into the nitty-gritty chemistry of soil, I recommend amending your planting areas with compost. Almost no "natural" soil, left here by the last big geological shift or skimmed into place by a developer's bulldozer, has enough organic matter for your gardening goals.

Add compost to your soil and gently work it into the top several inches. With increasing solar heat, organisms in the soil will rev up and naturally incorporate the compost into the soil structure; adequate but not excessive water will further draw in the compost. I recommend compost made from plant residues rather than chemically derived nutrient liquids (animal poo counts, as it is digested plants). On a molecular level, plants draw up soil nutrients in the same way, but I believe in closing the loop on our resources, turning waste into food, which is what dead plants become when composted correctly. Our valley's gardening stores all carry organic compost; make your own for future gardening (throw your non-meat-and-dairy kitchen scraps, leaves, grass clippings, etc. into a corner of your yard, and with a couple of waterings and turnings, you'll have compost next year).

Above all, use your eyes and hands to become familiar with what soil feels like, how long it retains moisture, what critters call it home, where and when the sun heat penetrates. Soil can remain a sustainable healthy and productive medium for gardening of all kinds with such attention. And your soul will integrate the ebb and flow of participatory knowledge as spring whisks into summer.

Lynea Newcomer is a gardening enthusiast and writer. You can find out more about her at

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