Out of the very air

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What are plants made of ? This is not a trick question. I began pondering this after reading about an experiment in The Overstory, the Pulitzer Prize winning novel by Richard Powers. The protagonist Patty Westerford (modeled after real-life tree behavior researchers) and her father conduct a long-term experiment with a beechnut tree. Before filling a large planter with soil and planting a seed, they record the weight of the soil. After more than 20 years, Patty returns to find the now-grown tree dead, neglected after her father’s passing. She removes the tree and all its roots and reweighs the soil. “The fraction of an ounce of beechnut now weighs more than she does. But the soil weighs just what it did, minus an ounce or two. There’s no other explanation: almost all the tree’s mass has come from the very air,” says Richard Powers in The Overstory.

It’s easy to forget that plants are made from air, water, and sunlight. The soil is merely the medium that holds the plant’s water pump and nutrient structure in place. Plants really don’t gain much nourishment directly from the soil – it must be freed up by insects, fungi, and other beneficial organisms and put into solution so the roots can “take it up” in the plant.

I have been contemplating the beauty of soil as I dug though mummified earth inside our new “hoop house”. We placed the hoop house over a patch of dirt in a convenient location, without regard for the potential soil underneath. Over the past months under the hoop house, the clay dried to adobe brick and I needed to employ the digging technique unique to our red dirt: 1) Carve out an indentation in the dirt. 2) Fill it with water. 3) Wait for an hour or two. 4) Dig in the now softened dirt. 5) Repeat. As I was carving, watering, waiting, and digging to get 15 holes dug for my tomato seedings, I had time to deliberate on the difference between soil and dirt.

Soil is a living breathing organism that lives in dirt. Simply by residing in the Four Corners, we have been gifted with beautiful red dirt. However, we are responsible for growing and tending the soil. Without soil, plants can’t thrive, and we would go hungry. Here are a few tips on growing and building soil in your red dirt.

  • One of the best features of our red dirt is that it is well balanced in mineral content and pH. However, to achieve top soil-growing conditions, it is often important to “amend” the dirt. This can be achieved with fertilizer (you might recognize the N-P-K (Nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K)) labeling) or organically with manure, compost, bone-meal, and ash. Since soil amendments require an investment of time and money, you might consider collecting a soil sample and completing a soil test to identify any deficiencies before spending on your soil.
  • Another organic option for amending and maintaining soil is to use mulch to cover the dirt and keep it cool and moist around the plants. This also reduces soil loss due to wind. Cover crops are designed specifically to cover and feed the soil when it is fallow. Their harvest is tilled into the soil to add nutrients and feed its micro-biome.
  • No till/minimal till is the latest way to maintain good soil. Rather than turning the earth each season to bust up the sod, so to speak, the latest thinking on soil maintenance encourages minimal tilling to maintain the network of mycelium and other underground structure to keep moisture and soil structure intact.

So, if we are what we eat, we are not dust, but water, air, and sun. Which makes me a bit more concerned about what is floating around in the air these days?

A reminder about the local Farmers’ Markets starting up the first week of June in Cortez, Mancos, and Dolores. The market season is always too short, so every week counts, and our farmers have been taking advantage of the plentiful moisture to have a variety of produce ready at the first markets. Don’t miss out!

Carolyn Dunmire writes from Cahone, Colo.

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From Carolyn Dunmire.