KODIAK — There’s a story of a certain man who had a fine horse. It was his pride and his wealth. One morning he went out to the stable and he found it empty. His horse had been stolen. He stayed awake many nights after that thinking what a fool he’d been not to put a stout lock on the stable door.

A sturdy lock would have cost but a few dollars and saved his most prized possession. He resolved that he’d protect his next horse better, but he knew he would never get one as good as the one he had lost.

This story was printed in the book, “Soils and Men: Yearbook of Agriculture 1938,” published by the U. S. Department of Agriculture. The moral of the story, as printed in the 4-inch book’s summary at the beginning goes like this: “The United States has been like that about its soil. Within a comparatively short time, water and wind have flayed the skin off the unprotected earth, causing widespread destruction, and we have been forced to realize that this is the result of decades of neglect.”

That was 80 years ago, during the Dust Bowl, a period of severe dust storms that greatly damaged the ecology and agriculture of the American and Canadian prairies during the 1930s. What caused the Dust Bowl? Farmers had plowed up the virgin topsoil of the Great Plains during the previous decade which displaced the native, deep-rooted grasses that normally trapped soil and moisture. The unanchored soil turned to dust which blew away in huge clouds that blackened the sky. Tens of thousands of poverty-stricken families abandoned their farms even during periods of drought and high winds.

Whether you maintain wheat fields in Fargo, North Dakota or Kodiak, Alaska, soil is at the very heart of successful growing.

Even on Kodiak Island we can see the degradation of soil, through natural and man-caused erosion, construction, unsustainable forestry practices, off-road vehicles—the list is a long one, if you stop to look at the causes.

Our soil resembles a “butter clay” and is characterized as acidic (low pH) and lacking organic matter. It’s a hodge-podge of sandy (volcanic ash) and smaller particles that doesn’t allow air and water to pass through it very easily. This explains why many lawns, gardens and parks around Kodiak become waterlogged when it rains.

In the garden, we can Save Our Soil (SOS) by ditching the Roto-tiller and turning organic stuff (aka, compost) into the top few inches of our raised beds.

Organic matter is the valuable “fluff” that binds soil components, like gritty sand, together. Air and water pockets develop (think of a good muffin) and act as highways for nutrients. Organic matter also helps with water retention and overall soil fertility. Which leads me to the most important thing you can do to improve your soil: Compost.

Compost 101

Compost is a rich soil-like material that works wonders in the garden. Compost is the solution to all your garden woes, says New York Times garden writer, Leslie Land.

+ It lightens heavy soils and improves drainage

+ It provides nourishment for plants

+ It supports beneficial microbial and bacterial colonies in soil

+ It helps control diseases

+ It saves you money by eliminating the need to use chemical fertilizers

+ It protects the environment by reducing contamination to water supplies

+ It cuts down on waste going to the landfill

Size matters in compost piles

The pile needs to be a minimum of 3x3x3 feet square in order for it to heat up and retain heat as long as possible. And it should be covered to prevent waterlogging. Turn it every four or five days. It will cool down and heat up again. Steam and a compost thermometer (available at Sutliff’s True Value) inserted in the middle is your best indicator. Don’t be surprised if you see temps over 100 degrees. In several weeks, the pile will have reduced by half.

What to add to a compost pile

Kodiak is blessed with many natural materials that are ideal for composting.

For starters, you have grass clippings, leafy kitchen scraps, and soft young weeds. Fresh manure, though not green, fits into this group. This is the green stuff, the high-nitrogen activators that gets the composting started.

The green stuff needs to be mixed with brown materials at a rough ratio of one part green stuff to three parts brown stuff to provide carbon and “body” to the finished compost.

Brown materials include tea and coffee, old stray and hay, wood shavings (sparingly), shredded leaves, sawdust, and shredded cardboard. I treat seaweed as a neutral material that mostly adds valuable minerals, micro-nutrients and fluff.

Avoid putting meat scraps, dairy products, cat litter, dog feces, and disposable diapers (yes, I’ve been asked) in the mix. Fish scraps and fishmeal should only be added to compost piles in non-bear areas.

Let your compost rest and mellow out for a while, even over the winter if you have that luxury. This is an important step, which allows microbes to finish their job and create a higher quality compost.

Re-purposing leaves

With all the leaves that are collecting on the ground these days, fall is an excellent time to build compost piles. And while you’re at it, collect extra leaves and set them aside to mix up with next year’s grass clippings.

Just like making salads or casseroles, your compost will vary in its structure and plant nutrition depending on the ingredients you use. You may have to experiment with different mixtures before you find one that makes a good growing medium for your needs.

While 1938 might feel like ancient history, the U. S. continues to “flay the skin off the unprotected earth” with big machinery and chemical fertilizers, herbicides and fungicides. And the fact remains: Soils are one of the key foundations for life on this planet. As Charles E. Kellogg so eloquently said in “Soils and Men,” “Essentially, all life depends upon the soil… There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”

If you have any questions about composting, give me a holler.

Want to learn how to take better photos, prepare easy, healthy recipes and garden in cool climates? Sign up for my email list. Send me an email to mygarden@alaska.net or visit my blog at marionowenalaska.com.

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