Tending the Soil, Tending the Soul

| 5/24/2018 3:00:00 PM

Tags: garden soil, stewardship, Laura Berlage, Wisconsin,

dogs in garden

Even the farm dogs (our English Shepherds Lena and Finlee) know to check on the health of the garden (and its resident critters). 

As the snows have finally receded and the frost has heaved its last, garden work has commenced in earnest on the farm.  It’s a month behind our usual routine, and though I’ve heard that you can have success with a cordless drill to plant your peas in the frozen ground (and get a crop out of it), I haven’t been desperate enough to try it yet.  Besides, there’s plenty of work to be done in the garden before getting out the bags of seeds.

Because as any rooted agrarian knows, it’s all about the soil.  Far more than simply a medium for holding up a plant, soil is its own living community of bacteria and fungi, rhizomes and earthworms, dung beetles and grubs of all sorts.  It’s an ecosystem that needs feeding and tending, respect and nurturing.  If an agrarian can do anything of worth during her time as caretaker of a farm—it’s to leave the soil healthier and more vibrant than it was when she found it.

And the soil on our farm in 1999 was in a bad way.  Sandy and rocky, used up by heavy potato cropping and years of making hay, it was a sorry, dry sight.  Between the glaciers, erosion, and meager management, the topsoil layer was about as wide as my finger, at best.  Sand and small rocks predominated, which won’t hold onto moisture once the rains quit, which meant that nearly all small vegetation that was unshaded simply burnt up in August.  It might be suitable conditions for growing pine trees, but it was not very conducive to growing food crops.

The thought that soil needed tending has not been common to our country’s agricultural history until rather recently.  Farmers kept moving west, plowing and using the land until it grew exhausted, then picked up and moved west again.  In the already fragile and thin soils of the Northwoods after the logging era (which caused massive erosion problems on its own), that “used it up” process happened in one generation.  What was pitched as “prime farm land” in the 1910’s and 20’s was going back into pine trees in the 50’s. 

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