Deep under their blanket of leaves and wood chips, the tiniest members of my community lie fast asleep. Their hard work is done for the season, and they are taking a well-deserved rest. They are seasonal workers, and they work hard in the spring, summer and fall, assisting me in my garden with dozens of gardening chores.
Some of them manufacture plant nutrients, and others deliver those nutrients to my plants. There are miners who mine critical plant nutrients out of the rocks in my garden, using acids that they know how to manufacture. Others help run the recycling department, turning waste plant material into plant food. There is a law and order department as well, and they monitor any disorderly conduct that arises from those imbalances in the soil that we like to call soil borne plant disease. They protect my plants’ roots by manufacturing substances like hydrogen peroxide which helps to control the offending organism, and they insure that the food supply lines for my plants stay open and free from attack and obstruction. This soil dwelling community works overtime during the growing season and they now deserve some time off.
The beauty of a truly organic garden is that the work that goes on in the soil is a well-coordinated system. When the plants are dormant, the microbes that deliver nutrients are dormant. When the plants become active, the microbes become active and begin to break down and deliver nutrients on an “as needed” basis. Nothing is ever wasted in nature. This is how nature has functioned since the beginning of time; and how ecosystems, if left alone, continue to grow in richness and diversity. It is only when we are unaware of how to work with this system that we run into all kinds of problems.
We have become a very visual society. Television and movies, glossy colorful ads, lights and shiny objects have become common place as competing interests vie for our attention and our dollars. Without stopping to take stock of things, chances are that we can be distracted enough to ignore the tiny soil creatures that we may not even be able to see without high powered microscopes. Ancient societies had more of a feel for these sorts of things. They may not have been able to see the tiny inhabitants of the soil, but they were keen observers. Their life depended on eking out an existence in cooperation with nature. They could not go to the supermarket to pick up a bunch of carrots or a cabbage for dinner. Once humans got past a certain amount of superstition they quickly learned which practices provided for them and which ones did not. In fact some superstitions involve rituals that are very beneficial to the soil, creating a series of successful practices which, although not fully understood, was passed down through the generations to ensure that everyone had food. There were floods and droughts, and scourges of insects, just as now, but if humans had not been so successful in their ancient methods I would not be writing, nor would you be reading this today.
This is why I mindfully allow my soil dwelling community some rest and relaxation during this time of year. I am thankful for the work they do for me. I believe in offering them a comfortable time off. I make sure they have enough food in the form of organic matter, and I insure they are kept warm and protected by blankets of organic mulch. If they happen to stir during a sunny winter afternoon they will not go without food, moisture, or a mulched up blanket of protection from the cold night that usually follows our sunny winter days. When the decomposers wake up they will use the raw materials in the mulch to provide food for other microbes as well as for my plants. Until then I will stock their pantry with the raw materials they will need, and protect them from temperature extremes with a blanket of mulch. It is the least I can do for my hardworking crew.
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.