I had a dream one night which changed my life. I was walking in the forest with hundreds of other people. It occurred to me that we were “on our path”. Towards nightfall we found a cabin that we could rest in, and I settled into a fine hammock and went to sleep. In the morning (in my dream) I awoke alone, and it then occurred to me that I was now on “my” path, and joyously continued on through the woods alone. I saw a bright light shining in the distance, and as I came closer I saw that it was a modern greenhouse with all the bells and whistles. Vents were opening and closing, there were high pressure sodium lights shining away, brighter than day. A stack of firewood reached out on either side like the Great Wall of China. There appeared to be no way around it, and no way over it. The greenhouse glowed with an eerie light. It appeared that the greenhouse, along with the endless stacks of firewood on either side, formed a barrier to continuing on “my path”.
This was not a welcome message for someone who was working as a technician at a college greenhouse, training people for the Greenhouse Industry. I knew that the firewood represented the endless amounts of energy that goes into keeping a greenhouse going in this climate, and I realized that growing poinsettias was probably not the best way to use that energy. This was the beginning of the end of my job. I could no longer feel comfortable in my situation, and this also brought to light other environmental issues that I became forced to deal with. I had long ago just said “no” to pesticides, but there was still the issue of using chemical fertilizers. I truly had never felt right about mixing up 15-15-18. Something just seemed instinctively wrong.
It was when I started to do research on the Soil Food Web that I found out just how damaging these fertilizers can be for the environment, and how ineffective and inefficient they truly are. I also discovered that merely not spraying pesticides was not all there was to going organic. I switched to a water soluble organic fertilizer, still not quite understanding the entire concept of how things can work. I grew okay plants, however they still suffered insect infestations that were difficult to control. It was only after further study that I began to see what an entirely different system growing organically can be, especially in a greenhouse.
Growing systems can evolve over time as we discover more and more about how things work. Although I knew a lot about plants, I was missing information on what exactly is happening in healthy soil. It was difficult for plants to break down organic nutrients on their own without a healthy soil ecosystem. A peat and perlite mix just does not work the same way. A sterilized potting mix will not work either. To access enough nutrition to keep it healthy, a plant needs to have allies. A plant in a healthy ecosystem will trade half of it’s carbohydrates back to soil organisms for services rendered. Very few soil organisms get established in a sterile media mix.
Soil microbes provide many services. These include the breaking down of nutrients in a time release that corresponds to a plant’s active growth. Nutrients are not broken down when temperature conditions are too low for plant growth or too high. This means that very few nutrients are released before the plant needs it and prevents excessive run off. Soil microbes also provide plants with protection from soil borne diseases, in some cases wrapping around the roots to protect them. None of these things will happen in sterile soil. Using good quality compost as medium and a well made compost tea as fertilizer can help tremendously, but need to be combined with good environmental control to be effective, since soil microbes work and thrive best when there are ideal temperature conditions, good air exchange and water infiltration in the medium, as well as organic matter for food. The answers started to become obvious. Nurture the soil and the soil ecosystem and the microbes that will thrive there will do most of the work for you!
The current mainstream system of agriculture and horticulture is unsustainable. The harvest of peat is an operation that destroys ecosystems. Chemical fertilizers are not manufactured in a sustainable way. Even the mining of some of the “natural” fertilizers is damaging to the environment, and trucking them long distances is unethical, as well as becoming more unrealistic with every passing day. Chemical fertilizers suppress, and in some cases destroy, our microorganism allies. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer run off, along with un-composted manure runoff are some of our biggest pollution problems. Organic growing is more than not just using pesticides. There is a philosophical definition of Organic Growing that includes using only local materials to re-enrich the soil, and recognizes that the life of the soil can provide most of the nutrient needs of plants. Even in pots, there is a way to build small ecosystems that will nourish and protect our plants from harm. By keeping the organic matter content high, by continually nourishing the life of the soil, and by not doing anything to harm the life in the soil we can harness the powers that have kept plants alive and well nourished throughout the centuries, even before man set foot on the planet.
Connie Kuramoto is a former instructor and technician at Vancouver Island University and now teaches courses through Nanaimo Community Gardens as well as the Organic Master Gardener Course for Gaia College.