The Soil Beneath Our Feet

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This is what I see when I look down in our back yard. I feel best with something like this under my feet.

(Another post in our Back to the Garden series. Find others by clicking the series tag on the left, under the date.)

I’d planned to talk about soil this week, and by happy chance, it turns out that this happens to be (the 3rd) Global Soil Week, marked by a big conference in Berlin. It’s actually being livestreamed, so if you want, you can put on a suit, sit in a folding chair with a notepad balanced on your knee, and pretend that you are there.

(It’s also–I just found out–the International Year of the Soils.  Soil is the new black!)

The concerns they are talking about at the conference are huge, global in scale: food justice, mass migration, climate change–indeed, the future well-being of the planet and all of us upon it, because our lives are dependent on soil.

Yet these concerns can be scaled to our own back yards. The microcosm reflects the macrocosm. We may feel powerless to influence the course of the world, but we can shape our own lives, our own neighborhoods, to mirror the change we’d wish to see across the world. We can, in short, start the work of crafting Eden, step by modest step.

Healthy soils are evidence of a loving landscape. Healthy soils bring many gifts, gifts which scale from the back yard to global economies. Healthy soils make strong plants, increasing food yields and discouraging pests. Healthy soils wick and hold water, helping in times of both drought and flood. And healthy soil sequesters carbon.

When we think about CO2 emissions, we think about the burning of fossil fuels–and we should, because those account for 65.5% of carbon emissions, according to this fact sheet from the State of Washington’s Department of Ecology. But did you know that the act of clearing and converting land for crops accounts for another 29% of our total emissions? Deforestation makes up the final 5.5%–and of course much deforestation is for agricultural purposes. As a result, much of our personal carbon footprint hinges on our choices about what kind of food we eat, and how it is grown–and those questions revolve back eventually to soil and soil health.

Soil sequesters carbon, so building healthy soils is going to be a vital tool in the fight to mitigate climate change. This article, Soil as Carbon Storehouse from Yale’s Environment 360 magazine gives a good concise overview of the issues.

Personal Action

On the personal scale, we can do quite a lot. First, whether we have soil to tend or not, we have considerable influence on soil world-wide through our daily actions. In this global economy, our consumer decisions count. A simple trip to market brings up a lot of issues, soil health being one of many, since everything is connected.

At home, day to day, we also have influence over various patches of soil. We may have a yard, or a community garden plot, or we may help in the school garden, or attend meetings about the landscaping of a local park or the future of a recreation area. In all these places, we can exercise soil stewardship.

Soil is so important that I’m going to really drill down into this topic. In the next few posts I’ll  be talking about 5 areas of personal action on behalf of the soil:

  • Our consumer decisions
  • Composting
  • Mulching
  • No-till gardening
  • Committing to not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides

This being Root Simple, I know our readers are savvy–in fact, I suspect our readers know more about this stuff than we do. But I natter on nonetheless, preaching to the choir.

I hope the information I’ll be posting helps to provide you all with a little inspiration, or a fresh idea. And if you are already a member of the choir, then by all means, get out there and spread the gospel! Help your family, your friends and your neighbors understand how important soil health is for all of us.

044 Daniel Kent: Cabin Dweller’s Textbook

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Our guest this week is Daniel Kent, creator of the Cabin Textbook Dweller’s Textbook and Dean of Beverages at the Institute of Domestic Technology. In our first outdoor podcast (recorded in the mountains near a creek) Kelly, Daniel and I discuss:

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

What to do with not-so-good tomatoes

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As we wait eagerly for tomato season to commence, or for our homegrown tomatoes to come in, we might find ourselves buying grocery store tomatoes out of desperation and then–inevitably- being disappointed.

Usually I try to avoid store-bought tomatoes all together, using canned when good fresh tomatoes are not available, but sometimes canned tomatoes just aren’t what you need, so you have to wait for summer… or suffer bad tomatoes. Now there’s a middle way. Grocery store tomatoes can be reformed.

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New Cat Sensation: Faux Rat Tail

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We’ve discovered a thrilling new cat toy: a long tail from a beet root. Yes indeed, it looks exactly like a hairy, dismembered rat tail, right down to the bloody stump. Even better, when batted, it moves like a rat tail.

In fact, the excitement around this toy was so great that I could not capture any decent images of our cat, Buck, and his rat tail, which he would not share with the other cats (who were wildly envious), or slow down his play so I could get an clear shot. By the next day, when he tired of it, the tail had dehydrated into little more than a rat whisker.

This Root Simple Approved Artisanal Feline Play Device contains no artificial flavors or colors. It is 100% organic, raw, vegan, locally grown, cruelty-free, sugar-free, gluten-free, compostable, non-toxic, derived from renewable beet crops and only somewhat staining to carpets.

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Saturday Tweets: Dubious Tips, Growing Furniture and So Much More

What does the loving landscape look like?

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A bit of our own loving–if not very tidy- landscape

A post in our Back to the Garden series, organized under the “back to the garden” tag

So, let’s say we want to play nice with the rest of nature. Let’s say we want public parks, yards and gardens which exist for more than show, spaces which support a diversity of life, steward our resources wisely and are a joy to the eye. We’ve got to change the existing lifeless paradigm of lawn and hedge and disposable annual flowers.

How do we do that? What does that look like?

Well, the how part is going to take a few posts to explain–but we can start with what it might look like.

The fantastic thing about this new landscaping paradigm is that it is entirely local. If we remove the heinous, homogeneous, ubiquitous lawn from our tool box, suddenly a yard in Santa Fe looks quite different than a yard in Michigan or a yard in Florida. We return, after a long period of delusion, to the realm of common sense.

Because the new landscapes are entirely local, I can’t even begin to list or imagine all the possibilities, but here are a few of the images I see when I think about a better future:

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043 Growing Vegetables with Yvonne Savio

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Yvonne Savio is the Master Gardener Coordinator for UC Cooperative Extension in Los Angeles County. In this episode of the podcast we pick her brain about:

  • Why you should grow your own food.
  • Favorite vegetables.
  • How to harvest vegetables.
  • How to prepare a vegetable garden.
  • Making compost.
  • The problems with municipal compost.
  • Raised beds vs. growing in the ground.
  • Where to buy soil.
  • Testing soil.
  • How to irrigate vegetables in a drought.
  • Buried buckets for watering vegetables.
  • Seeds vs. seedlings.
  • Succession planting.
  • How to plant seedlings.
  • The website and calendar that Yvonne is putting together.
  • Grow LA Victory Garden Program

You can reach Yvonne at [email protected]

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

Are Rubber Mulches or Tires in the Garden a Good Idea?

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Rubber mulches are used both as a soil cover and underneath artificial turf. Is this a good idea? According to “Garden Professor” Linda Chalker-Scott, the answer is no. She has a new fact sheet on the subject which concludes,

Rubber mulches can be attractive, easy to find and apply, and may not need frequent re-application. However, there are significant problems associated with using these mulches. In the short term, rubber mulch is not as effective as other organic mulch choices in controlling weeds. Furthermore, rubber mulches can attract insects (e.g., cockroaches), and they are highly flammable. In the long term, decomposing rubber mulch releases heavy metals and organic chemicals with unknown effects on human and environmental health. Other organic mulch choices, especially wood chips, are better performers and pose none of the environmental risks attributed to rubber mulch.

One of the principle plant toxins leached by rubber mulch is zinc. We have personal experience with zinc phytotoxicity in our own yard due to air pollution in Los Angeles (many years worth of brake linings blowing around and settling on the soil). I suspect that many of our gardening frustrations are related to our zinc problem.

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What about the use of whole tires in the garden, such as for planters or compost bins? According to a report by an environmental consultant sent to me by Mark, a Root Simple reader, whole tires do not seem to be a problem (at least in aquatic contexts). So it seems that we should keep those tires whole rather than shred them.

Coffee and Tahini Date Balls

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In a nutshell:

We’ve posted about this sort of thing before, and I know many of you already make fruit/nut balls and bars as healthy treats. So all you folks need to know is that these days we’re really liking the flavor combo of dates and tahini, rolled in a 50/50 blend of ground coffee and cacao nibs (these are the dark ones in the pic above). If you don’t have the nibs, you can just roll them in straight coffee–fresh ground espresso is best.

Give it a try. It’s super easy, and super tasty for the adult palate–and if you eat enough of them, you get a caffeine buzz as a well as a sugar buzz!

The recipe:

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