By Robert Kurth
I am in love. I am in love with two soil scientists, Christine Jones and Nicole Masters. These women from down-under make me swoon! My knees tremble when Christine talks about quorum sensing or Nicole talks about vericompost slurry. If they (and my current wife) would agree to bigamy, I would ask to marry them both. I’m not sure what I would bring to the marriage, but I’d be so very well-informed and entertained by their work and research.
And I love soil.
I can’t tell you why soil health fascinates me the way it does, but it likely started with the complete failure of my first garden in Manassas, Virginia. Back in the day, we had magazines and somewhere, I read about “double digging.” I dug into the red Virginia clay in my backyard to a depth of about 18 inches. Loosened ‘er up real good. I planted six tomatoes, as I recall, and watered well. Mind you, it is hot in Virginia so I kept those plants watered; yes, I did. But armed with just a little knowledge, I had created a large clay bathtub full of water and all six plants quickly succumbed to some rot or fungus.
In another magazine, I read about the importance of compost and during the 1983 World Series I hauled pressure-treated 2x4s into the house, watched the Series and built a “Cadillac of compost bins” - a three-bin behemoth to make lots of great compost and slowly improve the texture of the clay. I was sure I was on my way at last, but my employer had other ideas and we soon moved to New York’s Hudson Valley after one failed tomato patch and without the Cadillac.
A couple of years later, my wife and I built a small pole barn and she started to raise goats just for fun. I had an unlimited supply of organic goat manure mixed with spoiled hay. My organic journey had begun. It was a mixed blessing, I’m afraid. On the one hand, I had tons of raw material. On the other hand, I had TONS of raw material.
I started using lots of compost, expanded the garden year-by-year, and was mostly happy with the results. I remember a photo of Bean, our rabbit, enjoying a meal of parsley from a plant that could have fed him for a month. Sometimes it was glorious, but mostly, I spent my time at work, at baseball and soccer fields, or trying in vain to keep the goats out of the garden. That is hard. Tip: Do not build a four-foot-tall compost pile outside your four-foot garden fence if you even have baby goats. And don’t even think about planting a fruit tree anywhere on the property.
After my divorce, I ended up in an apartment in the Village of Millbrook, Dutchess County and the landlord, Bob Hefele, permitted me to do just about anything I wanted to the yard. The only thing he ever objected to was the fish pond. I had already bought a pond liner, one of my first online purchases. For all I know, it may still be in the garage's rafters in Millbrook. Bob later sold me the building at a price I could afford, well shy of any reasonable market price. I don’t know why he did that and have concluded that he must have been a saint.
The property had once been owned by immigrant Italians who knew how to garden and raise goats. The soil was incredible. It had been a garden for 60 years, though it was all grass when I moved in. Let’s just say it was in good tilth. I did say it was in good tilth and by that time, I even knew what that meant. It meant I could plant just about anything and it would thrive. Veggies, vines, flowers, fruit trees, grapes, raspberries; you name it, even if it was hardy in my zone (6B?), it thrived.
I got some chickens and built a coop and a pen extending up the garden's side. It was unlawful to raise chickens in Millbrook then, but I spoke to the mayor once when he stopped at the neighborhood restaurant. He said I could give it a try and he would let me know if anyone complained. Somebody did complain about the rooster, but not to the mayor. He complained directly to the rooster. I found the decapitated bird and its head in the coop one bright Sunday morning. The rest of the neighbors loved them, even the rooster, because they were the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrant gardeners. So, I had mostly happy neighbors and chicken manure. When I decided to enter my sunflower in the Dutchess County Fair, I needed a fourteen-foot Econoline van to get it to the fairgrounds. I came in second.
Then I got a little crazy. I studied biodynamics, learned that gnomes govern the soil and sprayed so much anaerobic “tea” that my very kind neighbor, Joe, ran out to ask me what the hell I was doing. (Joe was later my guest for the finest strawberry rhubarb pie I have ever made.) I took classes at the Pfeiffer Center and made all the biodynamic preparations, sprinkling stirred horn manure on the garden with a coarse paintbrush by moonlight. It was a bit like being the Pope, I imagined. Nobody at Pfeiffer talked about soil life except acknowledging that soil was alive. Little did I know that I was just at the edge of learning about the world of microbes. We had a visiting biodynamicist from Switzerland lecture about a whole-farm approach and I asked him what I could do on my tenth of an acre in Millbrook since I couldn’t raise cows, plant oaks or build a pond. He replied quickly: “Feed ze vorms.” And feed them I did.
After the crazy, I got sober. The AA twelve-step program encourages us to find a power greater than ourselves that can help us. (Here’s where Christine and Nicole begin to enter the picture; bear with me.). I started to pray by prostrating myself like a Muslim, but instead of orienting myself to Mecca, I oriented myself to the garden. When I spoke at an AA meeting from the podium, I acknowledged my higher power by the miracle of soil life, saying that “at the very tip of the very finest root hair science is unable to distinguish animal from vegetable from mineral, but there is surely a power greater than myself hard at work.” And the good people of AA told me that was good enough.
Perhaps one year, in 2016 or 2017, I needed to care for my father while his wife visited her family in Morocco. My dad was easy to care for at the time, and I had a lot of free time in Fredericksburg, Virginia. There is not much to do with free time in Fredericksburg other than shop at the mall, so at some point, I stumbled across John Kempf. Kempf opened my eyes to the even greater miracle: the deep, ancient symbiosis between plants and microbes to utilize photosynthetic energy to store carbon. That is the most important thing we need to understand about plants and soil and we must always make it the basis of our work as gardeners. When I speak from the AA podium today, I have to amend my words to say that science can absolutely distinguish animal from vegetable from mineral and even identify specific enzymes and autoinducers — the great work of a higher power.
I’ve been on a regenerative path ever since. I’ve watched a lot of videos. I've learned that, roughly speaking, everything necessary about soil health was re-discovered in the last fifty years (despite the Green Revolution) and what we’ve discovered about the symbiosis between plant and microbe happened in the last fifteen years. Thanks to USDA and other worldwide pioneers who've done the research, significant tax dollars are involved. This stuff is new!
To explain the fix we’ve gotten ourselves into regarding soil and the ramifications for the health of plants, animals, people and the environment, there is no one better than Christine Jones. To her everlasting credit, she can also explain and never shies away from the science, whether it be the effects of inorganic fertilizers and biocides or how we can use quorum sensing to our advantage. (Look it up!). This woman calls it like it is: 90 years of chemicals from Big Ag has killed life in the soil. Period. Full stop.
But we can do something about it, and I am thankful for Nicole Masters' advice. Most soil health consultants concentrate on large farm operations and I’m glad they do because that is where change is desperately needed. But once in a while, someone like Nicole scales down the message so it can be understood and applied at a garden scale. She taught me that I could make cheap and effective amendments specifically to supercharge microbe activity at the exact time and place I need when I plant the seed or transplant it into the soil. She recommended a slurry consisting of good compost or vermicompost, handfuls of soil from healthy gardens and the chopped-up roots of healthy plants mixed with some milk and molasses, kept moist until ready. I call this the “mother” and I always have some on hand and use it whenever I do anything in the garden — planting a seed? Soak it in tea from the mother. Transplanting? Cover the root ball with the mother. Watering the garden? Make more tea from the mother and sprinkle it about before watering. Weeding? Chop up a little bit and add it to the mother.
Today, I have another garden or two in Vermont. The largest is in a community garden where the sand is 30 feet thick and has been tilled twice a year, every year, for God only knows how many years. I practiced organic gardening in my plot for five years and never saw a worm, so I left. I returned 5 years later when I volunteered as a coordinator at the garden; my plots have not been tilled since. It’s been four years of soil regeneration using compost, cover crops, mulches, rock dust and teas. Now, there are a couple of inches of new topsoil and one spade full of soil contained 23 worms. Yields are good, not spectacular, and I still deal with my share of pests, but the food is fantastic! This year, for the first time, we didn't till the smaller field and almost all the plotholders are OK with that. Lest I forget, we also planted a small orchard on an unused plot. So we're making progress, as I measure progress.
Christine and Nicole (and John) assure me it will keep improving. (That's exactly what’s said in AA, by the way.) I believe them and I love them. And I will label any suggestion that I ever wanted to marry John Kempf as hearsay.
Rob Kurth, he/him, is from Essex Junction, VT. He is an older gardener pursuing regenerative practices.