It is very satisfying to be able to say that I have finally discovered how to build durable humus levels in my soil and permanently increase its nutrient and water retaining capacity, using methods I read about in ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries’, written in 1905 by an American agronomist named FH King.
In the book King tells of his travels in the far East studying in great detail the way of life of the large populations there and the agricultural systems which sustained them and which he consistently found to be superior to the lazy and wasteful systems in his own country.
On the flood plains of the major rivers large cities were built and around them networks of navigable canals radiated out across the plains, serving as a water reticulation system for irrigation, to reduce flood damage and as both a transport network and a giant fish and duck farm.
|A network of navigable canals across the plains|
His book contains descriptions of many of the labour-saving devices and machinery used in diverse processes, all driven by animals, people, wind or water and built from mostly wood and bamboo, with iron being used only in those applications where it could not be substituted.
|Machinery mostly built from wood and bamboo|
It's a bit like putting up blocks of flats for a billion homeless people, filling the pantry of each apartment with lots of good food and drink, and then letting them go for it. There is a lot of friction and competition as they rush in and start getting themselves sorted out, filling the easily accessed units first and then having too many children and having to struggle to move in to the progressively more difficult zones up narrow winding cul-de-sacs on steep terrain. Unfortunately for the homeless people there is no sewage system in these insalubrious apartments so they gradually fill up with waste, sticking fast and firm to walls, floors and ceilings as the food in the pantries is consumed.
When I used to make compost without clay I would now liken that to making a big pile of food and a few drinks for a billion homeless people and letting them go for it. They would get stuck in and rush around looking for the tastiest morsels. Lots of friction and competition, but not very much to drink. If I didn't turn the heap and add more water my homeless people would die of thirst, cooking in their own body heat and cursing me for not having thought my generous gesture through properly. If I did turn the heap and add water, then off they would go again guzzling away until the heap would only be a fraction of the starting size. How many tons of this inferior product I have laboured over in 35 years of gardening I shudder to think. Year on year I would shovel it on or dig it in but it didn't grow especially good veggies and it always disappeared quickly from the soil.
The heaps made with clay, so long as they contain a reasonable amount of coarse material to enable some air movement, do not need to be turned. The ingredients all get to soak and mix in a thick clay soup before stacking (putting a pile of food and drinks in every pantry) and the heaps seem to stay moist for a very long time. I recently opened up a heap I hadn't touched for three months and it was still moist and generating warmth. A reasonable compost can be made by simply wetting the materials with clay slurry as the heap is built but remember that only the material which decomposes in association with clay particles is going to become durable humus/clay complex. A heap built this way will probably need to be turned and re-watered too. Think of the difference between a dish that's been marinated compared to one that's only been sprinkled with a dressing.
Clay is made up of very fine particles so the combined surface area of all the particles in a peanut sized clod might be equal to a tennis court or three Clive Palmer skins or some such mind boggling factoid. No wonder, then, that it can hold so much water. Also these particles carry a negative charge so each one is capable of forming bonds with positively charged particles (ions) like many of the essential plant nutrients. They gradually fill up with waste, sticking fast and firm to walls, floors and ceilings as the food in the pantries is consumed.
The resultant compost is packed with nutrients which are more or less available depending on how complex the chemical bonding with the clay is. What we have here is humus in close association with clay, a long lasting, water retentive material in which plant roots and soil organisms can find all the nutrition they are looking for. A material which will keep carbon, not only locked up, but also doing a great job for years to come.
I dig my clay out of a bank using a rotary tiller when it's not too dry, hard and dusty or wet, sticky and heavy. Then I spread it to dry in the sun or under cover if rainy. When dry I pulverise it on a concrete slab with a sledge hammer wielded like a pestle until the largest crumbs are about 10mm. Then I make a rough measure of it's volume and mix in the appropriate amount of blended minerals. This mixture can be bagged up and stored in a dry place for future use.
To make compost I put a 100 to 150mm layer of the clay mixture in the bottom of a 200 litre drum, or if it is a big batch, a 1000 litre container, but an old bath tub would be easier to work with and would be well suited to a smaller garden.
|The process becomes more ergonomic and efficient when I use a 1000 litre container|
In my early experiments I added to the clay soup a blend of minerals and trace elements as developed by Steve Solomon in his book "the Intelligent Gardener" and which he calls Complete Organic Fertiliser. But then I decided to have my sub soil clay tested for 12 mineral elements and work out a script for a custom blend of minerals that I could add to ensure that the clay I'm using in my compost contains a luxurious abundance of plant nutrients in appropriate proportions.
The vegetables I now grow are healthier and higher yielding and better tasting than ever before and because the clay humus lasts so long I believe that if I keep adding it to my garden it will continue increase its overall fertility.
|The finished product, rich like a well seasoned fruit cake|
I will demonstrate this process during a composting demo in my garden on 18 May. The Food Garden Group newsletter for May will have details of the visit to Gordon's garden.
Many thanks, Gordon, for a very interesting blog post.