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Search for balance in your soil

This recent run of dry weather has me considering another wish for rain.

The last time I wrote about dry soil in this space, we had torrents of rain — or snow, depending on your elevation. While I'm enjoying this recent spell of sunshine, I know that's a bit self-centered, considering the huge population of wild things that depend on Mother Nature, not human engineering, to quench their thirst. And despite our assumptions when we go to the tap, of course, we all are dependent on the winter rains for our water supply.

Are you ready to shake the rain stick with me?

Thinking of Mother Nature, I went to a lecture about the remarkable farm of Masanobu Fukuoka, an international garden star, and author of "The One Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming." Trained as a scientist, he rejected the chemicals that replaced nature's fertility. Instead, he returned to the field and observed nature. Using the scientific methods of trial and error and his acute observation skills, he was able to produce rice and mandarin oranges in quantities that rivaled farmers using modern methods in his area.

One of the most important changes in his farming method was the elimination of plowing, and therein is a lesson for home gardeners, as well. When we turn the soil, it's like lighting a slow burn fire in the ground, says Larry Korn, who showed slides and talked about his years on Fukuoka's farm. What's burning is our organic matter, says Korn, and that's bad.

Of course, if you are familiar with garden writing, you've read the words "add organic matter (or compost)" over and over. So if tilling reduces organic matter in the soil, maybe we gardeners should try to do less of it. That's the advice of many soil scientists, who are recommending against roto-till methods. Rotary-tillers are best used for breaking up sod and incorporating that dense matter back into the soil. The rest of the time we should respect the integrity of the soil and its organisms.

Tilling adds too much oxygen to the soil, favoring some organisms over others, says Korn. Puffed up on air, these micro-organisms devour our compost, and that means fewer nutrients for food plants and, you guessed it, more work for us gardeners because we have to add more organic matter. In addition, all that soil life has to reestablish itself. These tiny critters are what make organic nutrients available, so you want them comfortably housed in your garden soil.

You certainly don't want to set their house on fire!

So how do you plant a garden without turning the soil? Well, first of all, you don't ever let your soil go barren. Cover crops or winter vegetables are planted toward the end of the summer garden season. New plants are eased into place, rather than planted in the well-mixed, brown soil we are used to thinking about. I've been doing this for a couple seasons now, and am satisfied that it works as well as my previous methods.

I add my organic matter and fertilizer on the top of the soil and just scratch it into the surface a bit, maybe half an inch. My coffee grounds go in directly, and I do like to use commercial brands with mychorrizal fungi, for soil life, and chicken manure, for its high nitrogen content.

For me, it is a bit easier at planting time, but I'm hoping for even more. I want the same thing for my small garden beds that Fukuoka gave to his farm — a return to balance for the soil that gives me so much good in return.

Althea Godfrey is gardening editor for HomeLife magazine. Reach her at writealthea@charter.net.