Soil is our only true capital

Winter crop: cold-hardy pea shoots. — Photo by Susan Safford

In her book The Soil Will Save Us (Rodale Books, 2014, 242 ppg; $23.99) Kristin Ohlson tells a good story, on a topic many would consider dull: soil and carbon sequestration. With her colorful and often amusing narrative, one learns what soil is, its importance, and how plants’ exudates and soils’ systems work together. Ms. Ohlson conveys the excitement about the regenerative power of carbon farming.

The book’s principal message is the value of increasing carbon content in soils. Carbon farming transfers carbon from atmosphere into soil affordably. By increasing soils’ carbon content, fertility and water-holding capacity increase; so do bottom lines. Water follows carbon follows water. Replace into the soil everything that is of organic origin.

It is the conversations with these carbon farmers — soils scientists, conservationists, farmers, ranchers, and ecologists — that I find good reading. Mob grazing, keyline farming, perennial agriculture, building the soil food web, agroforestry, and reforestation are the means used. Ms. Ohlson describes how many have changed their modus operandi from scornful dismissal to becoming true believers. They restore farmed-out (whether by ignorance or by dependence upon industrial soil-management techniques), degraded “dirt” to healthy productive soil.

Gabe Brown and the Burleigh County Soil Conservation District in North Dakota, Dr. Elaine Ingham of the Soil Foodweb, Allan Savory of Holistic Management, Abe Collins, technicians from dozens of agencies and agricultural working groups; all these and more contribute their experiences to this book. They “stand up for what they stand on” — soil, our only true capital.

The Soil Will Save Us has a strong reference section at the back of the book, but no footnotes or index. It is a narrative, and a good one, in the style of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Read it, and become excited about what you can do, in your own backyard or garden, on our own Island, in our only world.

The weather

My greenhouse has been like an igloo; at the moment pea shoots are its happiest occupants. Spring — snowdrops, cyclamen, and crocus galore — is already appearing in the British Isles and European points east. The equinoxes, solstices, and their companion seasons line up pretty well in the Old World (although that may be changing). Here in the Western Hemisphere, we seem to be getting knocked further and further out of sync with these markers.

Polar vortices dive-bombed repeatedly into the more southerly part of the continent last month, bringing a cold snap determined to hang around, and around. The entire Northeast has noticed the pattern, but will it become the new paradigm for future Februarys?

Persistent near-zero temperatures have consequences that we’d like to know about in advance. Our meteorologists have done a pretty good job of predicting what was about to happen outside the window this 2015 winter, but most of us are very interested in long-term patterns, and in knowing if winter 2016 is likely to parallel winter 2015.

Wood ash, utilizing organic by-products

With the cold snap promoting more round-the-clock stove use, wood-ash production proliferated. It is a mighty handy antislip substance to have for walks, steps, and parking areas, as most people know and appreciate; but that hardly used the entire backlog. Our recent garden soil tests have commanded “no more wood ash,” so that means of disposal was eliminated.

My flock of chickens has been separated from the ground for weeks. Snow cover and frozen soil have limited their scratch and peck and their means of dust-bathing to clean their plumage. My solution to ash disposal has been to strew them — cold, of course — over the deep litter in the henhouse.

Deep litter can accept bucketsful of the stuff, and the hens appreciate all of it for dust bathing. It will eventually be composted and end up on the vegetable garden soil, but only after the shavings’ pH has been moderated by the fermenting action of the deep litter, and been transformed by composting.

By the way, “deep litter” is a system of henhouse management that contradicts the sanitized, clean-your-coop-weekly philosophy. Instead, at regular intervals, bedding material such as wood chips, shavings, sawdust, or leaves, is added. Eventually it creates its own critical mass, fermenting, producing vitamin B12, beneficial nematodes that consume eggs of parasites, and microorganisms — until it is a living probiotic pile in the henhouse. Droppings are scraped off into the bedding, where stirring and processes of decomposition eventually break them down.

Proponents of deep litter claim that when this system is used, poultry health is enhanced. The litter is contributing to the flock’s immunities; a complete coop clean-out actually interrupts the protective action. Similar to inoculating a batch of sourdough with a starter from the previous batch, it is preferable to leave behind a layer of this litter for when the flock moves back in as you remove it for your gardens.

Chunks of charcoal from firewood (not briquettes) also contribute to animal health. Powdered or chunked and added to drinking water or feed, it is a “sweeper” of unwanted bacteria or parasites from the gastrointestinal tract. Using it in the henhouse turns the chicken manure black; you may find that your flock’s manure has little or no odor and is dry and easy to handle.

Fertilizer certificate course

As of Jan. 15, new fertilizer regulations have been in effect. Adult & Community Education of Martha’s Vineyard (ACE MV) is hosting a fertilizer certificate course Saturday, March 21, from 10 am to 4 pm at the MVRHS Performing Arts Center. Josh Aronie’s food truck will provide free coffee and light breakfast, as well as lunch. Lunch will be free for those who pay the full $85 and are taking the exam. To register, please contact ACE MV at 508-693-9222 or