In April of 1815 on Sumbawa Island in the area we know call Indonesia, an event occurred that influenced literary and movie history. Mount Tambora blew its top with such incredible force and spewed out so much volcanic ash that it continued to impact the world’s climate the following year. In North America and Europe, 1816 is known as the “Year Without a Summer.”
This was a rather depressing event for three friends who had planned to spend a portion of that summer playing on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Stuck with cold and gloomy weather, they decided to take advantage of the dreary mood. In the spirit of their surroundings, each would write a supernatural tale to entertain the others.
Two of the three were well equipped for the task.
The host of this unsunny summer interlude was Lord Byron, who was already attracting attention for his epic poems and his outrageous lifestyle. His friend, Percy Bysshe Shelley, had seen several of his plays performed successfully and was starting to achieve some notoriety as a poet.
The third member of the party had arrived with Shelley and had no credentials as a writer. Yet, the tale 18-year old Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin would conceive during that dismal summer would live on in popular imagination long after the summer works of her more famous companions were collecting dust in the files of literary scholars.
The girl who would later marry Percy Shelley, told a tale of a doctor who tried to build a living man from the remains of deceased individuals. The doctor’s name was Frankenstein.
The now classic story of the misguided doctor and his creature first hit the silver screen in 1910 when Thomas Edison’s film company shot a 16-minute silent adaptation. Since then, directors, producers, screenwriters and actors of various levels of talent have fallen under Mary Shelley’s spell. One of the most famous (and most easily parodied) scenes in many versions occurs right after we’ve been dazzled with lightning bolts, arcs of electricity, whiz bang machines and a building musical score. The creature twitches for the first time and the actor playing Doctor Frankenstein gets the chance to bellow “It’s alive!”
Haven’t you always wanted to play that role at least once? Well, I’m going to give you your chance.
Go outside and scoop up some dirt from your garden. Hold it in your hands and lift your arms toward the sky as you mimic your favorite Frankenstein actor’s take on that immortal movie line. You can do it now, if you wish. It’s OK, really, I’ll wait.
Welcome back, I hope you a great time and you didn’t scare the neighbors too badly.
I’ve had a lot of fun taking the long way around to a very simple truth; your soil is alive. The dirt in your garden is teeming with life ranging from microscopic bacteria and fungi to various bugs, worms and insect larvae. Some of these critters are monsters that can devour your young veggies quicker than you can say “Igor” and others can cause plant weakening diseases. For the most part, though, the life that vibrates, squirms, crawls, skitters and inhabits your garden dirt is a blessing.
In their daily activities, these beings build your soil structure and help nourish your garden. They recycle the organic matter in your dirt and break it down so that the nutrients are available to the hungry roots of your growing plants.
This is an ongoing process in your garden. The visible and invisible creatures that live in the soil are constantly consuming the plant debris and tiny animal remains in the dirt and converting it to humus. Without these actions, your garden wouldn’t retain water very well which really wouldn’t matter much because your sterile dirt would be a pretty lousy place to try and grow vegetables.
To grow healthy food you need healthy dirt. Healthy dirt is rich in the organic matter that feeds the critters that improve your soil. You want a diverse crew of these critters living in your garden because each one does different things to help make your soil better. Some of the soil-dwelling bacteria, for instance, transform nitrogen in the form of ammonium, which is produced by the decomposition of proteins, into nitrates, which are then available to your growing plants.
Other bacteria form nodules on the roots of pea plants and bean plants. These handy little nodules can actually convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into useful nitrogen compounds that your plants can use.
Actinobacteria are the little guys and gals that give your healthy dirt that sweet, earthy smell. They are also crucial in the process of decomposing organic matter and forming that humus we all love.
While every person who has ever had a garden for a period of time has had to battle a nasty fungus or two, some fungi are actually pretty beneficial. These good fungi form what scientists call a mycorrhizal relationship with certain plants, specifically your brassicas, tomatoes and potatoes. These fungi live partly in the dirt and partly in the root of the plant. They get a nice carbo feed from the roots and, in return, they supply the plant with nutrients and moisture. As an added bonus, some of these fungi produce a protein called glomalin which binds soil particles and stores carbon and nitrogen in your dirt, giving it an even healthier profile.
Meanwhile, many of your visible soil dwelling critters, like earthworms, are helping mix and till your soil while improving its structure and making even more nutrients available to help your veggies grow strong and delicious.
So, now that you’ve got some understanding of how much life is in your dirt and how essential that life is to growing healthy food for you and your family, why would you even think about using artificial fertilizers which destroy most of your vital, and mostly invisible, allies?
Chemical fertilizers with their over-abundance of “nutrients” actually burn the life out of the bacteria and fungi that benefit soil structure and plant production. Over time, use of these poison potions results in virtually sterile soil that produces weak, disease prone, predator attracting plants. You might get a year or two of seemingly good growth but you’ll pay the price in reduced production over time. Don’t risk ruining your soil, your environment and your health. Always use a naturally balanced organic fertilizer. As most of you know, Protogrow is my favorite. I’ve had success year after year using this blend of natural sea ingredients as have lots of other folks. The dirt in my garden remains healthy and the good critters who call that patch of ground home continue to do their work very well.
You may already have your own favorite naturally balanced organic fertilizer, if not, give mine a shot and I think you’ll like the results. Whatever you do, please stay away from that artificial stuff you’ll find in the brightly colored packages in the garden section of most big box stores this time of year. If you treat your soil right, it will treat you right. Living soil produces living food that nourishes the body. Don’t kill your dirt!
Well, that just about brings us to the end of this column. Until next time, I hope you and yours have a great time watching your young plants thrive in the living soil of your survival garden.