Black Gold: Organic Matter – Part 1, by R.M.

Organic matter should be considered black gold. This aricle will describe why you need to work on it, now.

Summary: Higher organic matter soils are just about drought-proof, need far less fertilizer, and the organic matter will balance out acid/base and many other conditions resulting in healthier plants that are more resistant to everything from too wet / too dry to insects and disease.

I started gardening in the sand hills of Florida over 50 years ago. 78 feet of sand until you hit clay. My first garden was a total failure. For my second garden I followed the exact recommendations from the local extension office about gardening, fertilizing every 4 weeks…. Watering every other day if it did not rain, and it was almost another complete failure. I sucked it up and went and talked to the little old lady who lived down the street. Her lush garden was clearly visible from the road so I figured she must know what she was doing. The message I got from her was “Organic Matter!!!” I eventually ran a small truck farm in these same sand hills with good results, before moving on to many other jobs and living in many other places. Every place I lived, except for the year stationed on a ship, I had a garden. We have been gardening and farming in Southwest Missouri on my farm for the last 34 years, a farm that had been tenant-farmed for many decades, and had less than one half of one percent (as low as the soil lab could measure) organic matter, so this is a very personal story. The bottom fields would not grow a good crop of weeds when we first started.

Change is the only constant, will it get dryer, wetter, hotter, colder? Will there be fertilizer available? Will you have money to pay for fertilizer even if it is available? Organic matter is the great leveler. If you need to depend on being able to grow food /forage, you need to think about organic matter. Louis Bromfield in his series of books starting with Malabar Farm (1948) tells the story of how abandoned farmed-out Ohio farms, with dry gravel-filled creeks were returned to productive farms with clear running water all summer long in only a handful of years, chiefly by increasing organic matter. There is a lot of information in these books (although they are pretty dry reading) but the central message is to just increase the organic matter of the soil. He had traveled to many places in the world where low organic matter in the soils were the central reason for poverty, drought, and famine. Conservation to me means how to make more money while improving both the health of the soil and the quality of what is being produced from tree to grain.

“What is Conservation? In its richest terms, conservation means the preservation and restoration of our soil, the husbandry, control and augmentation of our water supply, the preservation and restoration of our forest. But, in its simplest terms it means saving each of these things from our own destructive ways. Although as far back as 1900, when Theodore Roosevelt recognized the need for conservation, it is still a matter that is of high discussion today!
Soil, water and forests are the foundation not only of our national economy but of our very existence and civilization.” – Louis Bromfield

In summary, more organic matter in the soil, up to about 5%, will ameliorate almost anything.

Drought? A 1% increase in organic matter per acre will hold at least 16,500 gallons of free water that is available for plants to use (some official sources cite up to 27,000 gallons!). Here in Southwest Missouri, we expect a couple of DRY months each summer which will severely impact the garden if irrigation is not available. Even when irrigation is available, unless you have drip irrigation to each plant automatically controlled from moisture sensors in the ground, you will spend a lot of time watering and the plants will not do well if it is not done twice a week or even more often in really hot dry windy weather. If you just sprinkle the water on you are promoting a lot of viral and fungal diseases. It is a lot easier to “just have it there” at all times when a plant needs water. Think of how much work it would be to irrigate in a SHTF scenario! Higher organic matter soil will not just hold more water, but will absorb more water and result in less run off. More rain will fall on land that has more vegetation, higher organic matter will result in more dense vegetation.

Fertility? Organic matter holds on to nutrients so they don’t wash away to deeper levels in the soil. This keeps nutrients where plan roots can reach them. Wet times? Organic matter improves permeability and there is less plant stress. Hot times? Soils higher in organic matter will warm slower, organic matter will break down faster. Cold times? Higher organic matter soils retain heat better. Is your soil too acid or alkaline? Some plants need a specific soil pH in order to thrive, or even grow. If you have enough organic matter plants will thrive in soils that would normally be too acid or too alkaline. You can even be politically correct, raising the organic matter of an acre will take about 8-tons of carbon out of the atmosphere!

Have I convinced you working to raise organic matter is important, and that you need to work now on the soil that you are using, or could be using if ever needed ? If you take the (fairly typical?) scenario where you know that if a SHTF event was to happen you would need to garden (or have a larger garden), but you never seem to get around to starting, I would encourage you to get started! To both learn gardening skills (so you should be gardening even if it’s a small area; one of the most productive gardens I ever had was in a 2-foot by 4-foot raised bed sitting on ledge rock), and get working on raising the organic matter for the area where you ‘will’ garden (or pasture animals or farm). There is the rare situation where you may already have 5% organic matter (the goal), so you need to know where you are at, and how to measure your progress so you know when you can cut back on building organic matter. Every state offers low cost soil testing services, usually through your county extension office, and organic matter is one of the basic core tests.

There are many methods or combination of methods that can be used to raise organic matter, I will review three broad groupings that I use.

Intensive improvement

Intensive soil improvement means a lot more labor / time / cost, but the fastest results:

Haul it in, which works great for a small garden-sized area. You could get lucky and find someone who will haul in multiple large dump trucks of stable bedding and make this practical for large gardens to field-size projects, but that is not likely. Making compost is a great skill, speeds up the whole process, and is a good skill to learn, but keep it simple. Just keep your eye out for anything you can get for cheap or even free. There is a lot of leaves, grass clippings, manure, animal bedding you can get for free, and part of your preparation for physical fitness (a lot less expensive than joining a gym!) can be loading and unloading it! Just keep spreading it out over the area and let it decompose releasing nutrients and breaking down into organic matter to hold those nutrients. Do not spread leaves very thick at all unless shredded first or you are working on a long / very slow plan.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)