Publications (Paul's Blog)

April 29, 2010

Black Is Beautiful

Filed under: Uncategorized — Paul Dowlearn @ 2:06 pm

Carbon is black. Coal is black. Crude oil is black. The ink on this paper is black. Compost is black. Humus is black. What these things have in common is carbon derived from organic matter. The carbon molecule is the building block upon which all life on this planet is based. Therefore, soils rich in organic matter are black or at least dark colored………and that is beautiful in the eyes of a gardener.

All potting soils are black. I’ve yet to see a potting mixture that wasn’t. Regardless if the mixture is intended for roses, bedding plants, or even cacti, they all have this in common. While the various mixtures may contain different additives the bulk (and consequently what we a paying for) of any potting soil is that black stuff. The message this should convey to all gardeners is that the most important thing is the compost/humus content. The other ingredients are about fine tuning that mix to a specific plant or purpose.

Come to think of it, if I were to open all the various bottles and packages on the shelf at our totally organic nursery, the prevailing color would be black or dark brown. Even the products like corn meal, alfalfa, and orange oil will eventually turn black as they break down to form humus. Once again, this is because all these products are derived from living sources which are carbon based. The only exception that readily comes to mind is DE (diatomaceous earth) which is already millions of years old and still white. I don’t expect that to turn black anytime soon.

That being said, I think that we all need to be reminded occasionally of this most basic ingredient. It is easy to get sidetracked into thinking that there is some miracle product or ingredient that will make all our gardening endeavors successful. That ingredient does exist, but it is not whatever new and improved product that, without a doubt,will be accompanied by a huge advertising campaign, the miracle is, in fact, compost.

Now please don’t misunderstand. I sell lots of organic products and I believe in what I sell, but I am first and foremost a gardener. Experimentation is an integral part of gardening. For instance, this past season I did an experiment with high levels of lava sand on some corn. The results were impressive so you can be assured that all of this year’s corn planting will get a healthy dose of lava sand. Whether the result was due to the high mineral content or paramagnetism or perhaps both (?), I really can’t say but it was enough to convince me that something in the lava sand made a difference. However, I have not lost sight of the fact that the rest of last year’s corn which was planted in regular composted garden soil did just fine without the additive.

I am reminded of an article I read some years ago that was written by a rose enthusiast. This senior citizen certainly enjoyed her rose garden. She described the routine regimen which included the use of a high nitrogen synthetic fertilizer once a month. In addition she had her gardener apply foliar sprays, fungicides, and plenty of fresh compost plus mulch. No doubt her roses were getting all they needed, and then some. I wondered just how much of this was overkill.  It is a fact that plants can only use so much nitrogen. What is not used by the plants will form nitrates which are toxic to most living critters and in fact is the number one pollutant of our water resources. By contrast, my roses just get compost and mulch. I’ve never received any recognition or won any prizes for my collection of antique roses but I do have plenty of customers who like what they see well enough to buy them.

I can also honestly say that I have not had any outstanding problems with insects or disease in my rose beds or in the nursery. Sure we see some occasional black spot and some aphids in early Spring but none so damaging as to warrant a routine spray program. This brings us to yet another attribute of that black stuff we call compost.

As we continue to study life in the soil we find all sorts of microscopic creatures who live symbiotically with plants. These microbes actually protect their host plants from disease pathogens plus contribute to general health and vigor which helps the plant survive insect attacks. Beneficial microbes are present in all soils but are most abundant in soils that have higher levels of humus. A good soil profile will consist of a fresh mulch of organic material on top with progressive layers of material decomposing to eventually form humus. This creates an ideal environment for beneficial microbes to set up housekeeping not to mention earthworms and beneficial insects that can be seen with the naked eye.

So what we are doing with all the other various soil additives and foliar sprays is really fine tuning. These things do have advantages especially when it comes to growing non-native plants like vegetables or exotic bedding plants. Whatever the case may be, we should never lose sight of the vital ingredient……………that black stuff.

When you remove the compost/humus element what you have left is a basically lifeless soil with poor water retention, poor mineral exchange, and no storage capacity for dissolved nutrients. Yes, we can grow plants hydroponically in a soilless medium, but this is a very intensive form of gardening and not the sort of thing most of us are willing to take on, certainly not in the home landscape.

As I said, experimentation is part of any gardening effort. I think that we are all guilty at times in expecting too much from the new products we buy each year. We all fall victim to clever salesmen and well planned marketing schemes. Sometimes we get confused in all this and need to remind ourselves that the miracle is truly in the life/death/decay/new life cycle of carbon in Nature. I’ve often stated that if I were only allowed one weapon in my gardening arsenal, I would choose compost.

The concept of organic gardening is based upon compost. Switching from toxic or synthetic products to safer and sustainable methods is a step in the right direction but does not fully embrace the concept of organic gardening. You must accept Nature as your partner and mentor. Otherwise you will find you have merely replaced one set of products for another. In Nature, black is beautiful, for that is the color of rich soil.

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