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Composting > Maintaining Soil Humus

Maintaining Soil Humus

Organic matter benefits soil productivity not because it is present, but because all forms of organic matter in the soil, including its most stable form, humus, are disappearing. Mycorrhizal fungi and beneficial bacterial colonies around plant roots can exist only by consuming soil organic matter. The slimes and gums that cement soil particles into relatively stable aggregates are formed by microorganisms as they consume soil organic matter. Scats and casts that are soil crumbs form only because organic matter is being consumed. If humus declines, the entire soil ecology runs down and with it, soil tilth and the health and productivity of plants.

If you want to manage your garden soil wisely, keep foremost in mind that the rate of humus loss is far more important than the amount of humus present. However, natural processes remove humus without our aid or attention while the gardener's task is to add organic matter. So there is a very understandable tendency to focus on addition, not subtraction. But, can we add too much? And if so, what happens when we do?

How Much Humus is Soil Supposed to Have?

If you measured the organic matter contents of various soils around the United States there would be wide differences. Some variations on crop land are due to great losses that have been caused by mismanagement. But even if you could measure virgin soils never used by humans there still would be great differences. Hans Jenny, a soil scientist at the University of Missouri during the 1940s, noticed patterns in soil humus levels and explained how and why this occurs in a wonderfully readable book, Factors in Soil Formation. These days, academic agricultural scientists conceal the basic simplicity of their knowledge by unnecessarily expressing their data with exotic verbiage and higher mathematics. In Jenny's time it was not considered demeaning if an intelligent layman could read and understand the writings of a scientist or scholar. Any serious gardener who wants to understand the wide differences in soil should become familiar with Factors in Soil Formation. About organic matter in virgin soils, Jenny said:

"Within regions of similar moisture conditions, the organic matter content of soil . . . decreases from north to south. For each fall of 10 degree C (18 degree F) in annual temperature the average organic matter content of soil increases two or three times, provided that [soil moisture] is kept constant."

Moist soil during the growing season encourages plant growth and thus organic matter production. Where the soil becomes dry during the growing season, plant growth slows or stops. So, all things being equal, wet soils contain more organic matter than dry ones. All organic matter eventually rots, even in soil too dry to grow plants. The higher the soil temperature the faster the decomposition. But chilly (not frozen) soils can still grow a lot of biomass. So, all things being equal, hot soils have less humus in them than cold ones. Cool, wet soils will have the highest levels; hot, dry soils will be lowest in humus.

This model checks out in practice. If we were to measure organic matter in soils along the Mississippi River where soil moisture conditions remain pretty similar from south to north, we might find 2 percent in sultry Arkansas, 3 percent in Missouri and over 4 percent in Wisconsin, where soil temperatures are much lower. In Arizona, unirrigated desert soils have virtually no organic matter. In central and southern California where skimpy and undependable winter rains peter out by March, it is hard to find an unirrigated soil containing as much as 1 percent organic matter while in the cool Maritime northwest, reliable winter rains keep the soil damp into June and the more fertile farm pastures or natural prairies may develop as much as 5 percent organic matter.

Other factors, like the basic mineral content of the soil or its texture, also influence the amount of organic matter a spot will create and will somewhat increase or decrease the humus content compared to neighboring locations experiencing the same climate. But the most powerfully controlling influences are moisture and temperature.

On all virgin soils the organic matter content naturally sustains itself at the highest possible level. And, average annual additions exactly match the average annual amount of decomposition. Think about that for a moment. Imagine that we start out with a plot of finely-ground rock particles containing no life and no organic matter. As the rock dust is colonized by life forms that gradually build in numbers it becomes soil. The organic matter created there increases nutrient availability and accelerates the breakdown of rock particles, further increasing the creation of organic matter. Soil humus steadily increases. Eventually a climax is sustained where there is as much humus in the soil as there can be.

The peak plant and soil ecology that naturally lives on any site is usually very healthy and is inevitably just as abundant as there is moisture and soil minerals to support it. To me this suggests how much organic matter it takes to grow a great vegetable garden. My theory is that in terms of soil organic matter, vegetables grow quite well at the humus level that would peak naturally on a virgin site. In semi-arid areas I'd modify the theory to include an increase as a result of necessary irrigation. Expressed as a rough rule of thumb, a mere 2 percent organic matter in hot climates increasing to 5 percent in cool ones will supply sufficient biological soil activities to grow healthy vegetables if the mineral nutrient levels are high enough too.

Recall my assertion that what is most important about organic matter is not how much is present, but how much is lost each year through decomposition. For only by decomposing does organic matter release the nutrients it contains so plants can uptake them; only by being consumed does humus support the microecology that so markedly contributes phytamins to plant nutrition, aggressively breaks down rock particles and releases the plant nutrients they contain; only by being eaten does soil organic matter support bacteria and earthworms that improve productivity and create better tilth.

Here's something I find very interesting. Temperate climates having seasons and winter, vary greatly in average temperature. Comparing annual decomposition loss from a hot soil carrying 2 percent humus with annual decomposition loss from a cooler soil carrying 5 percent, roughly the same amount of organic matter will decay out of each soil during the growing season. This means that in temperate regions we have to replace about the same amount of organic matter no matter what the location.

Like other substantial colleges of agriculture, the University of Missouri ran some very valuable long-term studies in soil management. In 1888, a never-farmed field of native prairie grasses was converted into test plots. For fifty succeeding years each plot was managed in a different but consistent manner. The series of experiments that I find the most helpful recorded what happens to soil organic matter as a consequence of farming practices. The virgin prairie had sustained an organic matter content of about 3.5 percent. The lines on the graph show what happened to that organic matter over time.

Timothy grass is probably a slightly more efficient converter of solar energy into organic matter than was the original prairie. After fifty years of feeding the hay cut from the field and returning all of the livestock's manure, the organic matter in the soil increased about 1/2 percent. Obviously, green manuring has very limited ability to increase soil humus above climax levels. Growing oats and returning enough manure to represent the straw and grain fed to livestock, the field held its organic matter relatively constant.

Growing small grain and removing everything but the stubble for fifty years greatly reduced the organic matter. Keep in mind that half the biomass production in a field happens below ground as roots. And keep in mind that the charts don't reveal the sad appearance the crops probably had once the organic matter declined significantly. Nor do they show that the seed produced on those degenerated fields probably would no longer sprout well enough to be used as seedgrain, so new seed would have been imported into the system each season, bringing with it new supplies of plant nutrients. Without importing that bushel or so of wheat seed on each acre each year, the curves would have been steeper and gone even lower.

Corn is the hardest of the cereals on soil humus. The reason is, wheat is closely broadcast in fall and makes a thick grassy overwintering stand that forms biomass out of most of the solar energy striking the field from spring until early summer when the seed forms. Leafy oats create a little more biomass than wheat. Corn, on the other hand, is frost tender and can't be planted early. It is also not closely planted but is sown in widely-spaced rows. Corn takes quite a while before it forms a leaf canopy that uses all available solar energy. In farming lingo, corn is a "row crop."

Vegetables are also row crops. Many types don't form dense canopies that soak up all solar energy for the entire growing season like a virgin prairie. As with corn, the ground is tilled bare, so for much of the best part of the growing season little or no organic matter is produced. Of all the crops that a person can grow, vegetables are the hardest on soil organic matter. There is no way that vegetables can maintain soil humus, even if all their residues are religiously composted and returned. Soil organic matter would decline markedly even in an experiment in which we raised some small animals exclusively on the vegetables and returned all of their manure and urine too.

When growing vegetables we have to restore organic matter beyond the amount the garden itself produces. The curves showing humus decline at the University of Missouri give us a good hint as to how much organic matter we are going to lose from vegetable gardening. Let's make the most pessimistic possible estimate and suppose that vegetable gardening is twice as hard on soil as was growing corn and removing everything but the stubble and root systems.

With corn, about 40 percent of the entire organic matter reserve is depleted in the first ten years. Let's suppose that vegetables might remove almost all soil humus in ten years, or 10 percent each year for the first few years. This number is a crude. and for most places in America, a wildly pessimistic guess.

However, 10 percent loss per year may understate losses in some places. I have seen old row crop soils in California's central valley that look like white-colored blowing dust. Nor does a 10 percent per year estimate quite allow for the surprising durability I observe in the still black and rich-looking old vegetable seed fields of western Washington State's Skaget Valley. These cool-climate fields have suffered chemical farming for decades without having been completely destroyed, yet.

How much loss is 10 percent per year? Let's take my own garden for example. It started out as an old hay pasture that hadn't seen a plow for twenty-five or more years and where, for the five years I've owned the property, the annual grass production is not cut, baled, and sold but is cut and allowed to lie in place. Each year's accumulation of minerals and humus contributes to the better growth of the next year's grass. Initially, my grass had grown a little higher and a little thicker each year. But the steady increase in biomass production seems to have tapered off in the last couple of years. I suppose by now the soil's organic matter content probably has been restored and is about 5 percent.

I allocate about one acre of that old pasture to garden land. In any given year my shifting gardens occupy one-third of that acre. The other two-thirds are being regenerated in healing grass. I measure my garden in fractions of acres. Most city folks have little concept of an acre; its about 40,000 square feet, or a plot 200' x 200'.

Give or take some, the plow pan of an acre weighs about two million pounds. The plow pan is that seven inches of topsoil that is flipped over by a moldboard plow, the seven inches where most biological activity occurs, where virtually all of the soil's organic matter resides. Two million pounds equals one thousand tons of topsoil in the first seven inches of an acre. Five percent of that one thousand tons can be organic matter, up to fifty priceless tons of life that changes 950 tons of dead dust into a fertile, productive acre. If 10 percent of that fifty tons is lost as a consequence of one year's vegetable gardening, that amounts to five tons per acre per year lost or about 25 pounds lost per 100 square feet.

Patience, reader. There is a very blunt and soon to be a very obvious point to all of this arithmetic. Visualize this! Lime is spread at rates up to four tons per acre. Have you ever spread 1 T/A or 50 pounds of lime over a garden 33 x 33 feet? Mighty hard to accomplish! Even 200 pounds of lime would barely whiten the ground of a 1,000 square-foot garden. It is even harder to spread a mere 5 tons of compost over an acre or only 25 pounds on a 100-square-foot bed. It seems as though nothing has been accomplished, most of the soil still shows, there is no _layer _of compost, only a thin scattering.

But for the purpose of maintaining humus content of vegetable ground at a healthy level, a thin scattering once a year is a gracious plenty. Even if I were starting with a totally depleted, dusty, absolutely humusless, ruined old farm field that had no organic matter whatsoever and I wanted to convert it to a healthy vegetable garden, I would only have to make a one-time amendment of 50 tons of ripe compost per acre or 2,500 pounds per 1,000 square feet. Now 2,500 pounds of humus is a groaning, spring-sagging, long-bed pickup load of compost heaped up above the cab and dripping off the sides. Spread on a small garden, that's enough to feel a sense of accomplishment about. Before I knew better I used to incorporate that much composted horse manure once or twice a year and when I did add a half-inch thick layer that's about what I was applying.

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