• Happy Feet

    by Dana Goforth

    The nation that destroys its soil destroys itself. — Franklin D. Roosevelt
    The nation that replenishes its soil replenishes itself. — Dana Goforth

    My first experience in understanding the importance of soil was about 25 years ago. I was living in the downstairs unit of a home in the Oakland hills. Just outside my door were three terraces overgrown with weeds and littered with stuff the bachelors upstairs decided to throw out the bathroom window, giving a whole new meaning to disposable shavers. After cleaning up the yard, I forged into new gardening territory that included double-digging bed preparation. To amend the soil, I decided to use aged horse manure from the stables at Tilden Park. When I asked to borrow the pick-up from one of the bachelors, I neglected to inform him of my intention (payback!). With a load of manure and a really, really good spade, I worked for several days digging and amending the soil. My efforts paid off when several months later, my vegetable garden was robust and hearty. So much so that the borage was over four feet high and in full bloom… and the boys upstairs found alternative disposal methods!

    One afternoon, my friend, Sandy, brought her daughter, Page, over to pick tomatoes. Page was a towheaded, precocious three year-old and a delight in the garden. We decided to stick her in the monster borage patch and take photos. Haloed by the purple-blue flowers, she looked down and giggled uncontrollably. She was squishing the wet soil through her toes and sinking into to ground. “Happy feet!” she bubbled. Happy feet, happy roots. I’ve never forgotten the phrase.

    Soil Composition

    Soil (never say dirt), is made up three elements: clay, sand, and organic matter. Each of these elements provides a different type of nutrient, which feed plants in various ways. The ratios of these components can vary widely. Sand, for instance, is finely ground up rock and contains little that a plant can assimilate. Most cacti will thrive in this type of soil, but will die a slow, rotting death if its feet are covered in too much moisture-retaining organic matter. Most other plants will wither and die when placed in soil in which the sand ratio is high. Very few plants can tolerate the dense, moisture laden properties of a primarily clay soil.

    In between these three primary elements are pockets know as “pore space” which contain air and water. Pore space can change seasonally and sometimes even daily. Many garden soils in Pacific Grove are predominately sand, and the regular addition of organic matter, such as compost, is recommended to retain moisture and to nourish the plants. In addition, sand has a minor abrasive quality and will “chew” through the matter faster than in a more balanced soil type.


    The holy trinity of fertilizer is nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash: N-P-K. (The N and P are easy enough to remember: nitrogen and phosphorus; but the K for potash refers to its nomenclature from the periodic table of elements, potassium.) Pot ash refers to the traditional method of leaching wood ash for use in the garden and in making soap and glass. It’s derived from the Old Dutch word potaschen. All plants need N-P-K elements to survive. Nitrogen provides proteins and causes new growth. Phosphorous provides energy for the plant and facilitates flower growth and seed production. Potash improves water retention, aids in protein synthesis, and promotes strong stems. Commercial fertilizers are required to list these ingredients on their products, generally in numbers referring to the amount of N-P-K in the mixture. What they are not required to tell you is where the ingredients come from. Many cheap, synthetic fertilizers contain treated human waste (sewage sludge) or dredged sediment from the bottom of a canal (usually near industrial output or a port of call). The term sludge is not pretty so marketing people have changed it to “biosolids” or “activated compost.” Whatever the hell they call it, I don’t want this stuff in my garden especially on culinary plants. Major ewwww factor. Pay the extra few dollars and use quality, organic fertilizer.

    I think of soil in the same way as I think of plants, as a living being. Both are reliant on things outside their control, like fallen leaves, worm casings, water, and sunlight. However, a home garden, with non-native needs, requires special amendments. For the most part, I make my own fertilizers. Here’s a source for each component:

    Nitrogen: Alfalfa Meal, Blood Meal (steamed), Hoof and Horn Meal, and Fish Meal.

    Phosphorus: Bone Meal, Phosphate Rock, and/or Soft Phosphate (colloidal).

    Potash: Wood Ash, Green Sand or finely ground Crush Granite (use in moderation, can affect the pH of the soil).

    Soil Modifiers

    To further fine-tune your soil fertility, modifiers may be added directly to the soil or your compost pile. Calcium is a common need and is available in the form of dolomitic lime, gypsum, and crushed eggshells. However, only a professional soil test will indicate the requisite of calcium. All types of grass-fed animal manure are a good source of organic matter and also work as a fertilizer. Aged manure is a great source of nitrogen, as illustrated by my Oakland garden. Be mindful of how much is needed, however, unless you want a backdrop of nuclear plants to photograph a toddler in. Compost is one of the most essential soil modifiers and works on many levels. It holds moisture, improves drainage, neutralizes toxins, releases nutrients, and feeds the micro-biotic life below, specifically beneficial worms. Making your own compost is easy, but you must plan its location and be prepared to give it some attention. For smaller gardens, bulk organic compost (OMRI listed) is available in Marina at Last Chance Mercantile. Support local businesses I always say.


    The definition of pH is a long and boring logarithm and makes my eyes cross. Simply put, a pH factor measures the hydrogen (H) ion activity in living things… ‘nuff said. All soils fall on the pH scale between acidity and alkalinity. Most vegetables grow best in slightly acidic soils. Camellias, rhododendrons, and many ferns thrive in extremely acidic soil; while lilacs (Syringa spp.), clematis spp., and some ceanothus spp., prefer a more alkaline pH. Again, professional soil testing is recommended before messing with this element of soil management.

    Feed the soil, not the plant

    Fertilizers, soil modifiers, and the pH balance of the soil all work together. Altering one will affect the others, which of course will affect the well being of your plants. Use your instinct and let the plant tell you when it has happy feet or is in need of attention.

    Note: I’ve referred to professional soil testing a couple of times as opposed to home testing products. A professional test may give you too much information on your soil profile, while a do-it-yourself test may be limited to the N-P-K only. Know what you want to test for before purchasing a kit.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 31, 2013

    Topics: Diggin' It


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