Guest Post by Darryl Birkenfeld
You may not think of it, but a gardener is a home builder–not an abode for children or family, but a shelter for the multitudes of living organisms in the soil (learn about the soil food web at this link).
Could human beings live in a house without a roof? Of course not—we would perish from exposure to the heat, the cold, rain, or the relentless winds. Believe it or not, the same is true of your soil.
In the Llano Estacado region, the most important thing you can do to be a successful food producer is to keep your soil covered, so that soil organisms can multiply and thrive. Newly-plowed moist soil with little plant residue might be pretty to look at, but it is not a good home for the soil food web. On the other hand, if you keep your soil covered with a “roof” of straw, leaf mulch, stalks of last year’s crops—then there’s a home for beneficial soil critters like small bugs, microscopic arthropods, bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, earthworms, and living roots. You may be the gardener, but these are the characters that do the real work of food production.
At the end of each season, the most important thing I have learned to do in my gardens is to cover them up with a mat of stalks and plant litter. But when it is time to plant new crops, what do you do with the thick blanket of organic matter? In earlier years, I would scrap it off the soil or spade it in. I had to learn to keep the roof on the house I had built. So now, I lift up the blanket at one end of the raised bed and carefully roll it up until it forms a big round bale (see photos) Then I can plant seeds or harvest or whatever I need to do. Afterwards, I “unroll” the round bale to replace the roof. Yes, it falls apart a bit, but the litter and mulch are easy to move around and spread back into place. I apply some water over the top, and presto, the house is secure from the winds and heat. I just make sure that the organic matter is thin enough to allow seeds to sprout and plants to grow through (like the garlic in the last photo below).
Our Llano climate can be brutal on exposed soil. In this new season, do yourself and your plants a favor—build a living roof over your soil organisms, and they will reward you in fantastic ways.