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Organic Residues – The Needed Energy for Soil Fertility

Through millennia farmers have known that the soil must be fed (with organic materials) and nurtured to keep it producing. This basic understanding was lost by conventional agriculture when chemicals (and high dollar marketing) came on the scene 100 plus years ago.

As a result of the inundation of chemicals on our soils, they have become depleted of all that is needed to grow food.

Our society promotes “quick fixes” and synthetics and as a result many gardeners (even those who consider themselves “organic”) see no problem with using synthetic fertilizers if they deem them necessary.

The point is argued and debated in numerous articles and forums as to whether or not one or two or more applications of a synthetic “quick fix” is harmful. No matter the answer, in my opinion that point is only a distraction to keep one from addressing (or seeing) the big picture.

The Big Picture

Nature is the Master gardener. We’re either working with her or we’re not. We’re either on the bus or off the bus.

Are we walking in the direction she leads? Are we seeing how close we can get to what she teaches that will lead to abundance? Or are we walking the line of questionable practices?

Contribution of Energy by Organic Residues

Soil scientist, Richard Parnes,  in his book Soil Fertility states that the damaging thing about the controversy between which is better – organic or synthetic – is the tendency to ignore (and thus belittle) the far more important value of organic residues: which is its contribution of energy to an agricultural system. It (the energy from organic residues) is required to maintain soil fertility and there is no substitute.

Notable soil scientist, Richard Parnes, ran the soil testing facility at Wood End Laboratory in Maine in the 1980s. It’s specialty at the time was to offer recommendations for organic fertilizers.

Much research was done in an effort to understand the distinctions among fertilizers organic, inorganic, and synthetic. The research at Woods End led to a book they published in 1985 entitled Organic and Inorganic Fertilizers. That book was updated and published by AgAccess in 1990 under the name of Fertile Soil.

Mr Parnes updated the book again in 2013 (now entitled Soil Fertility) and published it online, freely available to the public under a creative commons license. (He maintains copyright, but you can read for free.)

Nature Maintains a Delicate Balance

Another message that came across loud and clear to me was the message that nature has set up a delicate balance. She knows exactly what she’s doing and makes it easy for us to follow her just by adding organic materials to our soils. In most cases, when you add a little of this nutrient and little of that nutrient (whether organic or synthetic) you can easily throw the balance off and cause more trouble than what you had to begin with.

Soil Test Not Always the Solution

Mr. Parnes also points out that a soil test is not always the solution. Different labs have different procedures of determining things that may or may not be a suitable way for other locations.

Mr. Parnes’ Conclusion About Fertilizer Applications

There are so many variables to deal with when one uses fertilizers that Mr. Parnes draws the conclusion that “the idea of being able to calculate fertilizer application with any hope of certain is an illusion. At best we can apply what we think is necessary” and then be prepared to adjust as we go.

The Solution?

Throughout the book this noted soil scientist states in various ways that “the major emphasis for good soil management should be on recycling organic residues, —”

A Simple Example

Regular readers know that for years I had only mulch and plant residues to nourish my soil.  I didn’t know anything about cover crops back then.

I was delighted when I read what Mr. Parnes said about folks who mulch continuously: (parentheses are mine for clarity)

“People who mulch continuously can assume a carryover from previous years (of nutrients) and that almost all the nutrients are amiable (since amiable means friendly I am interpreting this to mean usable), except for leaching and nitrogen losses (which are small).”

Final Thoughts

The book was not easy reading for me. But I made myself read every word because I wanted to know first hand what this knowledgeable scientist had to say.

Much of it is charts and information on fertilizers and nutrients which for the most part is boring and complicated – at least to me. Almost invariably I caught myself napping over those parts. But finding the  “good stuff” was worth the effort. (I want to share more with you in future posts.)

I’ve known for almost 40 years that my way of gardening with nature works.  After reading what Mr. Parnes had to say, I know more about “why” it worked.

I especially appreciated the simplicity of how he ended the book after giving a lot of detail on fertilizers. He said, “If these conditions are difficult to keep in mind, reconsider organic residues.”

Now that’s talking my language!

Related Posts and Suggested Reading:

Organic Gardening – Using Practices That Enhance Nature’s Systems

Organic Pest Control – Disease Management – Working on the Cause rather than the Symptom

Quick Fixes – Recipe for Failure – Nature’s Recipe for Success

Mulching, Weeds, Annuals, Crop Residue to the Rescue

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7 comments to Organic Residues – The Needed Energy for Soil Fertility

  • Thanks Theresa, I have looked up this title and bookmarked it for future reading. PS: How did your green bell peppers do this year? My plants grew but never set fruit. The rest of my garden did well. I’m thinking too little full sun because of crowding? too much nitrogen and too little something else? I use composted straw and goat manure as mulch, legume cover crop (peas) and nothing else. Any ideas?

  • Steve

    Theresa,
    I am feeling like I am gaining ground on synthetic gardening. When I heard someone I recognize, say a friend has 900 tomato plants and has done horribly this year because of the weather. My garden actually did some improving, I am extremely encouraged. When you post this article I am all the more encouraged. We had so much rain this year it was more more like monsoon season than our typical weather. I know the wood chips had much to do with my garden not drowning out plus my commitment to stay completely off any type of enhanced fertilizers and chemicals.
    Thanks again
    Steve

  • Don Rutherford

    Theresa

    Again, You have very accurately laid out compelling information on how to fertilize the soil. It was extremely well done and convincing.

    We see our lawns turn brownish and add fertilizer, and the grass turns green again for about 2 months, so we get a false reading on what it going on. If the grass turns brown, it is natures way of protecting the lawn, and when rain returns, the grass will green up. It will not be harmed, but better equipped to handle stress. So we get a false idea of fertilizer and the best way to fertilize our gardens.

    My pumpkins, planted in compost are doing very well and next year, I will double or triple the amount of compost I plant them in.

    Thank You so much.

    Don

  • Pat

    Theresa, this post came at a good time. I have been wrestling with my plan for cover cropping because the entire garden is very heavily mulched with grass clippings right now. Do I move all the mulch into a big compost heap in the garden? Or do I rake it into the paths and plant cover crops in the raised beds only? The information you shared from Parnes’ book brings my stress level WAY down! Thank you so much!

    pat

  • Theresa

    Betty, I think I’ll address your pepper questions in a post since I have a bit to say on the subject. In short – I started California Wonder (my favorite bell) and then lost it. But I have other peppers and none of them liked the year. I’ll elaborate in the post.

    I’m glad you were encouraged by the post Steve. And yes, I feel sure that your wood chips helped the drainage in your garden. Certainly glad to hear of your commitment to stay completely off any type of enhanced fertilizers and chemicals. Marketing is what makes folks think they need them. Facts don’t back it up.

    Don, I liked the way you put it — “we get a false idea of fertilizer”. That is so true and we owe it to marketing. The chemical companies have lots of money to put into making folks think they need them.

    Pat, really glad this post was timely for you and that it got your stress level down.
    Regarding your clippings — you can do what is convenient for you — put in a pile or in the paths. For me it would be easier to rake the clippings into the paths. Plant the cover crops and sprinkle a little of the dry grass clipping back onto the bed to protect the soil until the covers get going. Even if the clippings decay into the paths, you can rake or shovel the path soil into the beds next season.

    Theresa

  • Julie Martin

    Thanks for your reply to Pat. I have the same dilemma–I want to plant cover crops but my straw hasn’t broken down enough to seed through it. My Bush beans are drying down in place and I wanted to chop up the residue and keep on the bed, but that’s where my Fall lettuce is going.

  • Theresa

    Some options Julie:
    Pull back your straw and sow your cover crops. Then lightly sprinkle with straw to protect the soil and its moisture. As the cover crops come up, add more straw.
    You can do several things with the bush beans in order to get your lettuce in earlier:
    Pull them up. Leave the plants at the edge of the bed for now. Sometime I cut them into pieces that “lie” better so they won’t get in my way.
    OR
    You can cut the plant off at soil level and leave the roots in the soil for the time being. Set the plants at the edge of the bed. Cut to a more manageable size if desired.

    Although the plants can be allowed to decay without further action from the gardener, I usually cut mine into more manageable pieces, leave them on the edge of the bed or in the path, and cover with straw. You can always use a hand tool, hoe, or rake to pull the soil where the beans decayed back into the bed for the next crop.

    Theresa

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