Tending the Soil, Tending the Soul

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms
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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. 

So we had a real depleted mess on our hands at the old homestead.  The answer?  Animals and composting.  We raised pigs in paddocks we wanted to be garden the next year, allowing them to not only root up and eat the troublesome quack grass that grew everywhere, but also to add their nutrients to the soil.  Every barn and coup cleaning was piled up to steam away for several years, until what we dug out was dark, rich humus.  Every spring, we heap piles of aged animal bedding compost onto the gardens, forking or disking it into the soil.  And gradually, ever-so gradually, the land has changed in response.

The dusty color of the sand has transformed into an earthy blackness that smells and feels alive.  The broken-down organic matter retains moisture, builds loft, and provides ample habitat for earthworms and toads and other helpers of the garden.  Just today, while planting shelling peas, I could appreciate the way the tempered soil felt in my hand, compared with memories of the hard-packed, gritty, abrasive sand that had once been the predominant theme of this same patch 17 years ago.

But it’s not a one-time-fix operation.  You don’t just heap on some composted manure once and call it good.  It’s a process, a journey.  And one year it might be best to add straw-studded sheep bedding pack, another time the dense nutrients of chicken manure, and yet another the heavy fibrousness of cow and donkey pen scrapings.  Each have their own attributes to lend—packed with enzymes from the animal’s digestive process, worked over by bacteria and a myriad of small critters that aid in the decomposition process.  I still don’t understand why butterflies love compost piles, but something important must be going on!

So if I had gotten impatient and drilled in those peas into the frozen ground, I would have skipped the chance to tend the soil—assess the land’s needs, to turn it over, fold or chop in the year’s dose of compost, feel it, smell it.  All that would have been missed, and the pea plants surely would have suffered for it. 

Just the other day, Mom and Kara dug up one of the legacy rhubarb plants to split it and transplant the pieces about in an old garden we commandeered as the new rhubarb patch.  When we first came up, this old garden had been the point of our focus, but over time it became neglected as we put our energy in other garden plots.  Now, coming back to the rhubarb, what was left?  Sand and rock.  All that work doesn’t stick around—tending is a process, not a one-time solution.

Do People Need Tending?

But people are really like the soil too.  We need tending, both of ourselves and each other.  We need nurturing, sustenance, and a healthy community.  We need variety and diversity.  We need to be turned on occasion in a new direction, and to be open to rain and sun, and to welcome the chance to in turn nurture seeds of ideas and initiatives buried deep or newly planted.

Tending the soil, then, is actually a metaphor for tending the soul.  It’s interesting that there is only one letter difference between the spelling of the two.  Perhaps that’s a piece of why it can be so personally satisfying to work the soil in the garden, forking in that compost and drawing out the row for accepting the seed. 

20 years ago, this was sand and rock, with a few weeds and wildflowers trying to take a stand.  Now it will become a vibrant grove of peas and broccoli, zucchini and carrots.  Yes, I’ll have to share some of them with the local ecosystem (the ground squirrels, rabbits, and other ground-dwelling creatures), and some of the weeds will have their way, but the deep green of the foliage, the towering height of vine and branch, and the volume of harvest are all testament to the virtue of tending the soil without commercial fertilizers or pesticides—poisons in creative packaging.

But fertilizers and pesticides are quick fixes to bigger problems, and people certainly love a quick fix.  The long-long-range process of permaculture systems like composting animal manures and returning them to the earth for food production don’t have the instant gratification glitz, but that’s why it’s called “tending,” not “fixing.”  This also overlays into our human lives.  Quick fixes for physical or emotional depletion may abound, but none of them have the lasting effects of “tending” to your wellbeing.

This week, get your hands in the soil, start composting (or go turn the pile you’ve already started), and spend some time thinking about how you can tend your own garden—both the external and the internal one.  Yes, it will take some time, but from the steaming heap of “could haves” and “should haves” that you’ve allowed to lay down (instead of insisting to carry it around all the time), there may burst forth an incredibly beautiful flower of awakening.  I’m off to work another row in the garden.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Photo by Kara Berlage

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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