It Takes a Village to Raise a Chive

OK, I think my title for this blog is creative and witty, and I did manage to get a laugh out of entomologist Ken Fry when I told him my title. He too understands that what I say is true and has written in his book “Nothing grows in isolation”. You alone, cannot grow a chive, or any plant for that matter. Stop thinking of yourself as the grower! You aren’t. No offence intended, I am simply offering up due to recognition to what really happens in backyard gardens.chives-poisoning

Let me introduce you to the “Villagers” that are truly responsible for growing our food. Without these critters we would have nothing. It is true that we have tried to take over, especially in professional agricultural settings where farmers want to grow as much produce as fast as possible, but I would argue that we have never managed to grow a chive as well as nature grows it herself.

Villager group #1 are the soil microbes. They feed your plants a changing buffet of required minerals depending on what these plants need each day. Your tomato plant puts out her request, and myccorhizal fungus responds, in exchange for sugars of course. This network is called the soil food web. The sun shines and leaves of plants capture this sunlight, converting it (quite magically might I add) into sugars which it uses as energy itself, but also uses as a bargaining chip for minerals. Microbes not only feed your plants naturally, and a well balanced diet to boot, but they also keep your plants healthy, strong, more productive (if they are an edible variety) and generally pest free.

Villager group #2 are the Decomposers. Yes, microbes also decompose, but here I am talking about the macro decomposers. The ones that don’t require a microscope to see, but instead can be seen with your own eyes. These decomposers break larger parts (think dead trees for example) down into bite size pieces for the microbes. Worms are part of this group, as are sow bugs, wood boring types of beetles and spring tales. If it weren’t for this crew, we’d be wading in organic material and waiting much longer for the microbes to be able to process all of this natural waste. Thanks to these larger decomposers, organic material becomes accessible to microbes, who then feed the extracted minerals to plants.

Villager group #3 are the Predator bugs. Predators are the carnivorous variety of insects who like to munch on what are often referred to as garden “pests”. Ground beetles, for example eat slugs. An event I got to watch last summer in my own garden. I filmed this event which was part horror flick, part amazing earth video. Ladybugs, RKWKRKUKGKTK9Q1KIKZSPQZS5KTKWQHSNQLSVQ30BQHS9QF04KHSXKBKNQ1KIKF01QY0NQZS1QT0being the poster child for the organic gardening movement, love to dine on aphids. When you see this charming critter in your garden it can be an obvious sign that something is going right! Robber flies, my new favourite bug, will eat almost anything that is smaller than itself, and sometimes will even dine on insects slightly larger than itself. It is so well designed to eat others that it comes with a beard or moustache-type facial hair called a “mystax”. This mystax keep long prey legs from scratching at its face while being carried away. I find this feature to be so hilarious that I had to feature the Robber Fly in the photo above. Its colouring reminds us of bees and wasps, but this is a trick to scare away other predators. The Robber Fly is actually harmless to anything bigger than itself, and is well loved by natural gardeners!

Villager group #4 are the Pollinators. The best known pollinators must be the bumble bees. Not only are they one of the cutest garden critters; furry and gentle-natured, but

IMG_0772they also pollinate about a third of the world’s food crops, meaning they are essential for feeding this world! Pollination means we get fruit, but it also means we get seeds and therefore plants continue to grow into the future. Aside from bumble bees, other pollinators include honey bees, solitary bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and all sorts of flies and so on. Anything that buzzes past flowers or crawls inside of them for a taste of nectar and pollen is a pollinator, and we need these guys, as do the plants.

Fun fact: did you know that nectar is the carbohydrate source while pollen is the protein source for a pollinator? Both are necessary for their survival, so consider eliminating sterile plants from your garden-scape. Plants that are hybridized are often sterile, since they are developed for their double blooms or amazing colours, and not for their pollen or nectar amounts. Keep this in mind when designing your yard or when selecting plants for your patio. Pollinators need pollen!

Instead of bragging about what amazing chives you grow next summer, consider sending out a quiet thank you to those who are actually responsible for growing this tasty early spring veggie/flower combination; the “villagers”. These villagers include soil microbes, decomposers, predator as well as the pollinator group of insects. It truly takes a village to raise a chive!


7 Ways to Kill Soil Microbes: and why this is a bad idea….

I was shocked to see that for the second time in as many years I had cause my vermiculture worms some major trauma. This, after having the worms for 8 years previously without any drama. The problem? I was starting to come up with my own ideas, I was starting to experiment. Now, perhaps this doesn’t seem like such a bad thing to you, but the torment I caused my worms was such that on round 2, I managed to almost entirely sterilize (kill off all life in) their bins. I eagerly peered into my bins one day to find only just a couple of worms remained, even though only a few days previous there seemed to be tremendous and healthy populations.img_0089

As I had done the year before when I added too many coffee grounds and the worms started escaping (they can “run” pretty quick when they want to!) I removed all of the contaminated material and started the bins anew with the few remaining worms. This time, it wasn’t a garbage bag full of coffee grounds, instead I had added the leftover potting mix from my client’s summer petunia display.

Worms need both “bedding” materials, plus food, plus moisture to thrive. Bedding equals peat moss, or corrugated cardboard, shredded newspapers or dry brown leaves from your yard. I cringed at the thought of discarding the remaining potting mix as my client had asked, so instead I brought it home and started adding it in bucketloads to all of my worms bins, which equaled about 10 at the time. Note to self: it is OK to experiment, but try to keep these tests to a small area, perhaps to just 1 bin rather than all of them at once.

Sadly, there was no going back by the time I saw the damage caused, so I opted to remove all contaminated parts and started fresh. The reason for this disaster? Petunias that come from a garden centre are certainly sprayed with chemicals. In fact, I have never heard of “organic” annuals coming from a garden centre. It makes sense that they have to keep their plants in top shape otherwise their entire profit could be lost for the year due to a pest or fungus problem, so I am certainly not pointing fingers. As such, the potting mix was surely contaminated by pesticides (likely insecticides and fungicides to be more specific). I had underestimated the power of pesticides, and had thought that they would have broken down over the course of the summer, or that the worms would be somehow immune to their effects, but I was wrong.

Worms were not the only critters that got murdered that day. Worm bins are an entire ecosystem in and of themselves, which means there is a whole food chain involved that usually includes teeny tiny spring tales and various invisible microbes. The chemicals would have killed the rest of this system as well.

The good news? Within about 18 months I had 3 bins with viable worm populations. Not 10 bins that were stuffed full as before, but 3 with growing populations. The system can recover, ecosystems can return to health, and it was a thrill to witness that life always finds a way. The sight of the worms made me certain the microbes had also returned, as worms do not work alone, in fact they require the help of microbes to convert food scraps into organic and mineral-rich fertilizers.

So that is the first of the 7 ways to kill microbes, chemicals. We now know how valuable microbes are to ecosystems including gardens, so it is surely in our best interest to keep microbes alive. When they are present, our gardens suffer less disease, grow stronger, produce more fruit (and tastier fruit at that!) and attract more of the beneficial critters responsible for a healthy ecosystem. By knowing how to kill microbes, we will also be learning how to keep microbes alive. So here are 7 ways you can kill microbes:

  1. Chemicals, as explained above.
  2. Salt. Now why would I be adding salt to a garden? Maybe it is a deliberate addition? I was once told by a well-intentioned relative that the best was to kill dandelions is to dig them out then to pour salt down the hole. Turns out this is effective dandelion control, but the salt also kills the rest of what existed there; grass, worms and those very beneficial microbes. Maybe the addition of salt to your garden however, is more inadvertent. Perhaps you use a mix of salt and sand to deal with icy patches on your sidewalks in the winter. Then you shovel this salty snow mix onto your garden beds as the winter progresses in order to clear your walkways. Brown patchy grass and dead perennials in spring will indicate intolerance to this practice and may make you rethink your winter deicing regime.
  3. Vinegar. This is another weed killer. If you buy a horticultural grade vinegar (7-20% vinegar) and spray this on young weeds in the spring, they will die back, at least temporarily. The problem is the same as above however; vinegar kills indiscriminately, so it will kill other plants if accidentally sprayed, as well as the critters of the soil, including microbes.
  4. Chlorine. Chlorine is added to swimming pools and to our drinking water for the same reason; it kills microbes! The water that comes out of our hoses in the summer is full of chlorine, just take a sniff. So, if you use this type of water for irrigating, expect the microbe populations to suffer.
  5. Dehydration. In a not-so-obvious, but simple way, dehydration kills microbes. You want to preserve those summer berries? Dehydrate them and they will not rot. Soil microbes are no different. While very wet conditions cause anaerobic conditions (smelly and not-so-good bacteria and nematodes to thrive), drought also kills. This is one more reason to use a mulch in summer. Natural mulches prevent top soil from drying right out, also preserving those beneficial bacteria!
  6. Tilling. The no-till garden has gained in popularity over the past decade or so and with good reason. Myccorhizal fungus is an invisible-to-the-human-eye web in the soil that literally feeds your plants the nutrition they need in exchange for the sugars that plants can produce through photosynthesis of the sun. It’s a pretty great mutually beneficial relationship. Plants that have abundant amounts of myccorhizal fungus are less susceptible to diseases, pest problems and also grow stronger, since they are being well fed. Parent trees can share nutrition with baby saplings using this web as well, in a way nurturing them just as any other living being does its young. When we till the soil, we break up this invisible web, meaning our plants are left with fewer body guards. Only dig when it is necessary (ie- to harvest your potatoes or to plant a seedling. Otherwise, simply top dress your garden with all of the goodies including worm castings, and the microbes will travel to where they want to be in the soil food web.
  7. Starving. Last but not least you can starve a microbe, or billions at once as they tend to travel in packs of billions! Are microbes starting to sound like they have similar needs to those of all other sentient beings? Hmm, this is no coincidence. Microbes, like anyone else need carbohydrates. Naturally they’d get them from plants (photosynthesis produces sugars) to keep them going. If you have a bare patch of soil with no plants, then there will be no food. You can artificially add carbs to their habitat through sprinkling the ground with finely milled flour for example, or by mixing molasses into water and applying this. Or you can simply allow plants to grow as they will feed the system naturally. Does this help explain why bare ground doesn’t stay bare for long? Weeds are usually the first to come in, helping to amend the soil… but that’s another story!

The intention of this blog is to encourage people to look after soil microbes rather than kill them (as we often do accidentally). Life in the soil, aka microbes, are responsible for raising up our plants, flowers and vegetable crops. Without microbes our plants have access to fewer minerals, are more scraggly, produce less fruit (that will also not taste as good) and will attract more pests. Avoid murdering your soil/microbes, instead provide a safe and hospitable environment for these microscopic friends by providing food, water and shelter for these tiny yet impressively hard working critters!


Climate Farming

“Climate Farming” is a term I read about in Terra Preta, a book written by Ute Scheub. It means to grow food in a way that benefits our planet. We no longer need to think of agriculture as something that damages the environment through harmful practices involving chemicals and tractors. Instead “climate farming” means you will be growing good soil that will give back to the world endlessly. Your garden has the ability to make the177164110x world a better place.

Soil is made from sand, silt and clay. Your garden will have more or less of each of these 3 ingredients. Heavier soils mean more clay is present. Clay soils are stickier, and hold onto minerals in an abundant way. Sandy soils are lighter, more crumbly and hold on to fewer minerals. All soils can be amended by another ingredient; humus.

Humus is what is made in a compost pile, or right in your garden by worms and microbes. It is organic material that has been biodegraded until it looks dark and rich, it feels light and spongy and it smells fresh and earthy. Humus stimulates all of our senses in a delightful way, and with good reason, as we tend to be drawn to what is good for us. Humus helps retain moisture as well as soil structure in a garden, meaning that your plants also love it. Humus is full of microbes, since it is the microbes themselves that break down the organic matter to begin with, and microbes help feed your plants the nutrition that is stored in the soil. Without microbes, your plants could not survive.

img_3963Having high levels of humus in your garden, defined as greater than 2%, possibly even in the 10% arena, means that your garden has been turned into a carbon sink. What does this mean? It means that humus sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, eliminating greenhouse gasses from our environment. It turns out mother nature has a way around our careless polluting, and humus is her right hand man!

So what can you do to change your own yard into a carbon sink? Start making humus! Or, should I say, start allowing nature to make humus for you. This will benefit you, your garden and, it turns out, the whole world.

img_1324If you leave organic matter in your garden and let it biodegrade on the spot naturally, then humus will be made.

At the moment soil is disappearing 10 to 100 times faster than it is being made, as we are waging war on our soils. We kill the soil, reducing it to dirt and dust by applying chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. We then employ ploughs and tractors to rip up what’s left, destroying microbial habitat. By reducing soil (living and breathing matter) into dirt, we are killing off a quarter of the world’s species, which call soil their home, and we are rendering our fields useless. Dead dirt cannot support life, so food crops will not grow.

Let’s learn to employ those tiny farms hands, also known as microbes and worms, and encourage them to leave rich moisture-retaining humus behind. The microbes will thrive, our plants will thrive, our bodies will thrive (from eating mineral-rich foods) and our environment will thrive.

As Raoul Heinrich France said “Humus is made from life, by life, for life” so treat fallen leaves and grass clippings like a treasure bestowed upon us by the gods. Use them with good purpose, to nourish the Earth, and by default, our bodies.

Learn more through our programming at Growfoodcalgary.com. Tickets for or upcoming 8 month long programming are also available there!logo4