When we bought the farm our knowledge of soil was limited to the little bit of gardening I had done in our backyard. It was, to be fair, extremely fertile; the old soils were decayed Brunswick shale that had once been part of an ancient lake bed and the loamy fertile top dressing was made up of composted organic matter applied over a period of more than forty years. My grandparents always kept an old bucket under their sink into which they dutifully dumped their used coffee grounds, egg shells and potato peelings. When it was full they’d dump it into a compost heap in the back yard where it slowly decayed into a rich, black soil. They added wood ash from the fireplace, leaves raked from the yard, the husks of corn, cardboard — whatever didn’t go into the garbage returned in time to the garden. We never planted a great deal more than tomatoes and cucumbers, peas and corn, but what we did grow always did well without the application of fertilizers and it fed my family for five generations.
I suppose I thought that I knew something then, about being able to grow vegetables and simply scaling up to become more or less self sufficient if we planted a larger garden. Of course I failed to take into account a wide range of factors, not the least of which was that I really knew nothing at all about soil itself. I had never given it much thought beyond the cursory overview most people have, that it holds the roots in place and allows the water to be absorbed by them. You had to amend it, of course, with the generous application of organic matter on an annual basis, but that was pretty much it. Soil, dirt, loam — these were in my mind interchangeable descriptors of the stuff beneath our feet.
One of the first things we did when we arrived on the property was to select the spot for the family garden. The soils here were nothing like the rich, red shale of the Hopewell Valley, but rather a mix of sand and stone. The simple act of digging a shovel into the ground was an Herculean effort because every square foot contained rocks of every size and shape; quartzite, chert, granite and feldspar. The spot we had chosen was the south side of an old horse stall and, I assumed, sure to be fertile. What I noticed almost immediately was the absence of earthworms. None. What I didn’t know at the time is that the former owners, certainly not farmers but rather horse lovers who happened to live on what once was a farm, had kept their horses as most people who keep horses do. That is to say as if they were a kind of child to be lavished with care and tended with love. In most cases that meant the horses were kept close by at all times rather than moved from pasture to pasture under intensive management. Keeping any animal in close confinement leads to health issues and the solution to those were almost entirely pharmaceutical in nature, like wormers. And what I didn’t know was that those kinds of treatments pass through the horse and wind up in the soil where other kinds of worms usually live.
Our first garden was an unmitigated disaster. I tried to fix the problem of hard, compact soil devoid of earthworms by applying liberal amounts of composted horse manure, of which we had tons, never realizing that it too was filled with the same kinds toxins. We amended the structure of the soil, but not the fertility. It wasn’t until our third year that the chemicals had decayed enough for worms to make a comeback. By that time we had begun to raise chickens and to use their manures to improve the soil further. I learned to test the soil, the importance of ph in allowing plants to absorb nutrients and the importance of organic matter as means of improving overall health. I also learned a new word for it — tilth.
Each season brought a new level of understanding not only of what was required to build the soil, but more importantly exactly what it was that we were doing. You can tell by looking at the color and composition of the soil whether it is healthy or worn out but it is hard to know how to get it into that kind of shape without the knowledge and experience for a particular piece of land. Too much clay requires amending it with sand, too much sand requires stiffening it with carbon, a low ph means lime or ash to cut acidity and so on. Making the changes is something that comes with time, but understanding why the changes are necessary is something you can learn in an afternoon. My inattention to something so fundamental to the needs of my family’s nutritional requirements was one of my biggest failures in the first years of homesteading and I regret it to this day.
It took us about five years before we hit on the perfect solution for our problem. Our land was steep, boulder covered with thin, rocky soils. According to the extension services in our area the soils were extremely “new” due to the glacial action ten thousand years ago. That, in combination with the damage of deforestation and overgrazing in the last two centuries left most of our acreage in such a state that very little of it was fit for pasture or crops. We had made friends with the great-great-granddaughter of the man who farmed it in the early part of the 20th century and she had shared with us a photo album packed with pictures of the farm 110 years earlier. We proceeded to recreate the pasture patterns that were used at that time, first by cutting back the mixed growth forest and then by turning loose our hogs to uproot the lower growth and to turn the soil back over. By using the natural abilities of the pigs we saved on equipment and fuel costs and at the same time saved on feed. Those industrious animals helped us to rebuild the two and a half miles of old stone walls by uncovering the fallen stones for us to re-stack, turned the soil to ready it for seed and produced an intensely flavorful meat based on their forage diet. After the swine had accomplished their job we’d locate the exposed boulders, pour on a mix of sand excavated from our drumlins and cover that with wood chips to boost the carbon. As a final step we’d drop our bales of hay and bring in the cattle to eat. As the cattle eat they paw the hay and of course drop their waste all around the immediate area, boosting soil fertility. This process was repeated over and over as we located the weak spots and we planted a succession of nitrogen fixing seed like vetches, clovers and legumes. By the sixth year what had once been thin, forest covered soil punctuated by massive granite erratics were now lush, deep grass covered rolling vales that were able not only to feed our livestock during the grazing months, but a source of hay for the long Winters of New England.
Our gardens these days still face the same kinds of problems that any organic farmer contends with — insects, occasional blights or rusts — but they are rich with healthy hummus, dark and loamy and full of microscopic life that feeds everything else that lives here. We’ve come to understand the old adage that “all flesh is grass” in a way that makes perfect sense. Right now, as I write this, the snow has finally covered the fields for the Winter and the cattle in the front pasture are clustered around the bales we’ve put out for them on the last of the bony knobs. Spring is a long way off, further than I like to think about, but there is life out there right now, cows fat with calves, and underneath it all there is tilth in the soil.