How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food – Chapter 7

The [Grow] Network is pleased to publish Colin Austin’s 10 part series, How to Grow (or Buy) Healthy Food. This article is Chapter 7 of 10. You can read the other chapters here:

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
colin-and-xiulanWe now have a list of the minerals we want to get into us – via the chain of soil biology, to plant, and then to our bodies. We now have to turn this into a practical system, starting with what happens in the root zone of the plants we grow and eat.

Biology and the Rhizosphere

Everyone has their little foibles, and I would have to say that I am a bit compulsive – and if I was a teenager, I would say that I am into rhizospheres. When they are buckling me up in the straight jacket, I will be shouting, “I love rhizospheres – they will save the world!”

I seem to have spent my entire life living on really heavy clays, what they call ‘Saturday soils’ – on Friday they are a bog, on Sunday they are a rock, but on Saturday they are just workable. I once set up what was really quite a major research program to find out how to turn clay into soil. I evaluated all the common so-called clay breakers (a better name would be wallet breakers), and none of them really worked properly. But I did notice how the soil in the root zone was entirely different. While these soil additives may have some benefit, it is essential to find some plant that will grow in these heavy soils and also to keep the soil moist.

This was many years ago, and then I had no understanding of the importance of soil biology, but now we have experts like Elaine Ingham (see her on YouTube) to guide us and explain how soil biology really works.

Plants exude sugars to attract and feed soil biology; they also produce mulch to act as dessert for the little fellows. It’s much like our behavior where, when we find someone to be attractive, we invite them out to dinner. Food is more than nutrition.

There is a whole chain of these creatures; they start off by coating the microscopic particles of clay with a glue which they bind into small particles. They consume most of the food provided by the plant, but then they die and in turn are eaten by bigger creatures which may do a bit more soil binding and release some nutrients into the soil for the plants to eat.

The soil biology – particularly the fungi – mainly the Mycorrhizal fungi but virtually all fungi – will attack the insoluble rocks and dissolve them to release their nutrients. The hyphae of fungi are incredibly fine, so they develop very high stresses at their tips – they also release enzymes which further help dissolve the rocks and make the minerals available to the plants.

There is a whole chain of microorganisms, and eventually we have the macro creatures – the worms and the like – which bore through the soil making it like Goya cheese – full of channels through which water and nutrients can pass – and voila, we have soil. It all happens in the root zone – all thanks to the soil biology. Can you let me out of the straight jacket now, please?

Experts like Paul Stamet and Elaine Ingham have done such an excellent job of describing how soil biology and fungi really work that I am just giving these few introductory words – just go and ask my friend Mr. Google… how does he know so much?

I want to focus on turning this knowledge into practical benefit.

Putting Soil Biology to Work

Hopefully by now I have convinced you of the benefit of soil biology – you would not be alive to read this if it was not for soil biology – but how do we put this into practice?

You may be tempted to race out (or go to Ebay) and buy a bottle of biology. I feel tempted to say you can’t buy biology in a bottle, but clearly you can. I have even set up a little facility to grow soil biology which I sell to converts – but there is much more to soil biology than just dosing your soil with a bottle or two of biology.

I feel tempted to say, “just stop killing them and let them get on with it.” There is some truth in this, but what I am really saying is that we should learn to farm biology just as we farm our plants.

Let us face it – by the time you have studied soil biology, learned about all the various types of fruits, vegetables, and herbs, studied how the body works, studied diet and health, worked out how best to cook your food, pickle or ferment it to preserve it, and worked out how to make your website responsive so it works on a mobile phone, let alone worked out where the on/off switch is on your mobile phone – your brain (and certainly mine) has reached its saturation point.

As an aside, can anyone tell me why they don’t have on/off switches on mobile phones? Mine beeps at me in the middle of the night even when it is supposed to be off and I sure get fed up with taking the battery out all the time. So smart, but so dumb.

The point I am making is that you do not need to know all the thousands of known different varieties of creatures which inhabit our soils (which is only a fraction of what is actually out there). All that is needed is to know how to create the environment where the soil biology can flourish.

The Wonderful World of Ecology

If you visited our eco-village you may at first be envious, you would see the lakes with the wide assortment of water birds, the hundreds of kangaroos hopping about, the native bush which probably hasn’t been disturbed for thousands of years, and you may say, “Colin – what a marvellous place to live – to be so at peace and harmony with nature in this hassle-free rural environment.” I would probably agree with you that it is a pleasant place to live, but I would add that there is no peace and harmony in nature.

It is cruel and vicious nature, there is no such thing as being in harmony with nature – nature makes ISIS look like a bunch of wimps. Everywhere there is a battle for survival. I think that when Richard Dawkins conceived his famous book The Selfish Gene, he must have visited our eco-village.

Right now I am watching a herd of kangaroos grazing peacefully on the grass. We have just finished the wet season, so there is plenty of grass. The kangaroos have bred, so there are numerous baby kangaroos which even I have to admit look cute. But now we are entering the dry season, which can last for nine months. The grass will turn brown, and the kangaroos will start to starve and become aggressive for food. Then the rains will come again and the grass will shoot and the young bucks will start their ferocious fights for the right to mate.

Harmonious nature – “bah humbug,” as Scrooge would say.

But this conflict is everywhere. The animals – the kangaroos, possums, and rabbits – are after my food. A python ate my favorite cockerel, and Xiulan (who is definitely not a snake person) said, “no more chooks.”

I found out she was not a snake person when she was working away on her computer and felt something crawling over her feet. When she looked down and saw it was a python, I learned she was not a snake person. I had to have a new floor laid with no holes.

The birds are probably the worst. They are tame and will come to get a bit of food when we are eating on the veranda. But they insist on pecking our mangoes to see if they are ripe. I don’t mind them having a mango or three, but why do they have to peck every single mango to see if there is one that is ripe? Did they learn nothing from my previous article about statistics? If you sample three and they are all as hard as bullets, then the probability of there being one ripe one is virtually zero. Stupid birds – but the crows are the smart ones. I put some fish in a sealed polythene bag out to thaw on the veranda. It disappeared. It was a day later when I found the bag which they had carefully pecked open that I knew where my lunch had gone.

But it is not just the animals; the plants engage in chemical warfare which would make George Bush invade our eco-village if he were still president. We have casuarina trees – a native with fine needles that make a beautiful singing noise in the wind. But they are aggressive. They send out toxins which kill off all other plants which may think about entering their space. They are not just passive-aggressive, they are actively aggressive by sending out runners which will pop up tens of meters from the mother tree and start to poison the soil with their toxins. Maybe I should check under my bed to make sure there is not a forest emerging.

Am I just prattling on or is this leading somewhere, you may rightfully ask. You’re right – it is leading right underground to the wonderful world of soil biology which it the most aggressive place under the face of the earth.

The Ecosystem Paradigm

fad-diets-dont-workModern agriculture has adopted the philosophy of focused aggression against the predators. We have a vast array of poisons to control virtually anything and everything. When farmers began to appreciate the importance of soil biology, they adopted what I though was a horrendous approach.

They would cover the soil with tarpaulins and fumigate the soil with methyl bromide – a highly toxic chemical which kill anything and everything. They would then go and inoculate the soil with ‘known’ good bacteria. This was all done with the best scientific advice possible at the time. My reaction was, “what an arrogant approach – we are just at the birth of soil biology – we simply do not know enough about soil biology to manage it in this crude way.”

They may have a case based on short term profits, but I don’t grow plants for profit – I want to grow plants so I can be healthy and enjoy the remaining days of my life on this earth.

Actually, I have been trying to work out how to donate my body to soil biology when I die. You have no idea of the regulations which prevent me from just sneaking into one of my wicking beds and donating my body to the worms, which have been part of the gang that provided me with healthy food while I was alive.

Bureaucracy, huh!

Old Books

I rather like to read old books on farming – it is really interesting to see how farmers managed before agriculture became so dominated by science at the beginning of the last century.

One book everyone with an interest in food should read is Farmers of Forty Centuries. In ancient China, they didn’t have to worry about bureaucrats saying what you could or could not do with your deceased. Out into the fields they went. They recycled everything.

But one particular practice which intrigued me is the way these old time farmers managed inoculation of clover. They did not appear to have any understanding of the microbes which capture nitrogen around the roots of clover. But somehow they had learned that they needed to collect soil from the roadside or wild country and mix this with the seeds. So why can’t we have a modern day version of this? Well if you were found digging up soil in native bush you would soon be arrested, so I have developed my own legal version.

On my block there are areas which have never been tilled. I am also surrounded by native bush and creatures which visit my block to steal my food, but they also bring with them an active biology.

So as I told you I set up an area to be a ‘bio-reserve’ based around my waste water disposal system. I am now extending this to the total perimeter of my block – an area which will not be worked. I established a variety of plants which will both mine nutrients and also develop a biologically active rhizosphere.

I may make a few barbs about buying biology in a bottle, but I also cheated and bought various commercial inoculators – particularly mycorrhizal fungal spores. I know mycorrhiza are there already because I have seen the mushroom heads, but I am a bit of a belt and braces person.

So now I have what I call a bio-zone full of soil biology – I never grow anything in these zones apart from plants for my second stage compost. They are essentially sacrificial land just to breed soil biology.

I use this two stage composting process with all my totally yukky rubbish, the rainbow water, household and garden rubbish, overly persistent door to door or mobile phone salesmen – anything vaguely organic that can’t walk away – and use this in my first stage composting.

This is not the nicely balanced carbon – nitrogen compost that you see in gardening shows – this is serious rubbish. It is shaped like a horseshoe, with the gap for me to load the rubbish facing away from the house. This is an attempt to keep Xiulan happy. I hoped it might help her accept my messy ways. Wrong! And my explanation that this would make a nice place for the python to live so it did not come into the house did not go over well at all.

I do not use this compost directly in growing my crops – I use the foliage from the plants that grow in the yuk to feed the soil biology and provide nutrients.

Coming Up in the Next Chapter
We have come to the point where we have this beautiful pile of rich nutritious leaves, and soil full of active biology, but it is sitting in the middle of a totally yukky eco zone. So now we have to look at transferring the goodies into our growing areas while leaving the yuk behind.

Chapter 1 – Diet and Health, a Personal Experience
Chapter 2 – Statistics and the Diet Controversy
Chapter 3 – Eat Right, Not Less
Chapter 4 – Finding a Diet by Self-Experimentation
Chapter 5 – Essential Nutrients for Good Health
Chapter 6 – The What and Where of Minerals
Chapter 7 – The Rhizosphere
Chapter 8 – Transferring Nutrients and Biology to Growing Beds
Chapter 9 – From Garden to Kitchen
Chapter 10 – Community Action

© 28 July 2015 Colin Austin – Creative Commons – This document may be reproduced but the source should be acknowledged. Information may be used for private use but commercial use requires a license.

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