Improving the Soil

The ground beneath our feet

East Tennessee red clay soil.

If a person puts a shovel in the ground almost anywhere in the South, like as not, they will bring up red clay soil.  In East Tennessee it is a bright, redish orange and it supports a thriving brick making industry in my hometown.  Show it to a professional grower and you’ll get a strong negative reaction.  Clay is no good, they’ll say.  You’re better off digging it up and buying topsoil, whatever that might cost.  Our soil is dense, easily compacted, often waterlogged and quite acidic.  In the spring, it is cold and boggy.  In the summer, it can bake so hard that roots have no chance to grow through it.

Transforming the native soil into something more friable takes a lot of patience, hard work and respect for natural processes.  It is often worth the effort, as improved clay soil will hold nutrients and moisture far better than its sandy counterpart.  I don’t mean for this blog post to be about the technical aspects of improving soil—I just want you to know more about the ground we are standing on here.

Lately, I’ve seen a number of progressive efforts in my hometown fall flat.  Initial enthusiasm is there, but I’m noticing that the follow through—the lasting participation—isn’t happening.  Johnson City is a college town.  Many people in their twenties and thirties come through here for an affordable public university and then leave when they need to find a good job.  They aren’t putting roots down.  Personally, I know how hard it is to find a good full time job and I feel quite lucky to have one.

To all sides of us, movements to support local, sustainable agriculture are coalescing to beautiful results.  Abingdon, Va., Greeneville, Tn., and Asheville, N.C. all have thriving buy local, grow local, love local movements.  I wonder what it is about my hometown that is resistant to these kinds of efforts.  Johnson City is ever building more strip malls to house ever more chain restaurants and big box stores filled with every consumable imaginable.  This is considered progress.

Appalachian Sustainable Development in Abingdon, Va. just launched a branding program so that customers can rest assured that they are buying a product grown or made within a thirty mile radius.  I am surprised when I come across a product made in the USA let alone from within a 30 mile radius of where I live.  I do my best to source food from local producers and to support small, family owned business for everything else, but one person does not make a movement.

Spinach seedlings

Spinach seedlings in our community garden plot.

What I can do though, is work the soil and sow seeds.  I can nurture the seedlings that dare to grow in our red clay soil and I can help tend to those being planted by like-minded folks.  Some days, I get impatient with how small they are, how fragile and easily killed seedlings can be.  I have to remind myself how long it can take and how much effort can be required to get anything to thrive in this kind of ground.  It takes patience and a willingness to stick around for many seasons.

I see my friends getting tired of failure and lack of jobs, and often they migrate to where the soil is easier to put down roots.  I hope that the efforts we are making with the soil today will payoff with a stronger, more vibrant community tomorrow.  Bill Mollison wrote in his books on Permaculture that nature will return our efforts tenfold, whether they be positive or negative.  New research on Biochar is showing that adding carbonaceous material to soil causes a multiplying effect on soil life, which in turn generates even more carbon capturing ability.  I want soil with community capturing ability.

Movements start small and slow, but if you are patient, the return on your efforts might be far greater than you can imagine.  If you do nothing, the clay will stay clay.  Care for the soil first and your seedlings will grow strong.

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