Going Soil-Friendly

Do you ever think about the importance of the innumerable tiny creatures living underground, right under your feet? In just one tablespoon of soil, according to North Carolina State University’s Cooperative Extension Service, some 50 billion microbes are working away.

That’s if the soil is healthy.

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By NoNomme (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I remember a conversation with an Ohio woman active in the environmental movement. She told me a story about a farmer who decided to switch his (conventionally farmed) cornfields to chemical-free produce. His seeds sprouted, but grew stunted and deformed.

The land had been blasted with petrochemicals year after year. Now there was nothing left to support a plant. No microbes. No nutrients.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

My most recent Farm Indiana piece concerns a small agricultural fertilizer business called Sterling Formulations, led by a young man aptly named Vince Plowman.

Sterling Formulations’ team assesses farm fields and recommends soil-friendly additives depending on the particular needs of each field. They apply microbes and micronutrients to balance and nourish the soil that nourishes us.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations' Shelbyville, IN plant.

Filling a container with earth-friendly fertilizer concentrate at Sterling Formulations’ Shelbyville, IN plant.

The team includes an Amish farmer who offers knowledge based on generations of experience. (My people!)

“The Amish have been farming organically for centuries, and quite successfully,” Vince told me. “They treat their soil right, and guess what, they’re getting yields comparable to conventional.”

He was surprised to learn that conventional farmers are as receptive to this message as organic growers. He said, “We found, in talking to a lot of conventional farmers, that so many of them are curious.”

Corn Field

Though he half-expected a derisive response from the conventional agribusiness side, so far that has not been the case. “What we found is they’re absolutely afraid…They don’t know how to do it (transition off chemicals), and they don’t have anyone to step them through the process of going to organics without absolutely killing themselves. They’re used to getting 200 bushels an acre, and they’re afraid they’re going to get 50 next year” if they stop using chemicals.

What comes next in that scenario isn’t pretty: they’d likely lose their farm. And many in that arena are supporting multiple families on the farm.

But Sterling Formulations is stepping into the gap. The goal is to help heal beleaguered soil through tailored applications of microbes and kelp-based fertilizers. Instead of petrochemicals that artificially prop up crops, these nutrients and tiny creatures create a living medium for plants.

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve heard about in a long time. Farmers who want to stop using chemicals can get support in the switch—and stay profitable during the transition.

You can read more about Sterling Formulations in my Farm Indiana story.

Building Resilience One Vertical Garden at a Time

At FoodCon I met two of the people behind the innovative Bloomington-based Garden Tower Project. Check out their garden-in-a-barrel design with built-in worm composting. Up to 50 plants can be planted in this unique vertical garden.

Garden Tower on Planting Day

Garden Tower on Planting Day

The center tube is perforated down the entire length, allowing red wiggler worms to travel between the compost tube and the soil. Kitchen waste goes into the center tube and turns into compost and worm castings. Bonus: The protection of the soil in the barrel means the worms can survive through the winter.

How genius is that–worm composting right in your container garden?
Finished compost, with happy worms

Finished compost, with happy worms

From the website:

“In an era of rapidly rising food prices and industrial farming practices that strip our food of nutrients essential for good health, we believe the Garden Tower is one small step in empowering people towards their own food security.”
The company hopes to nurture a community of growers. They’ll soon launch GrowingCircles.org as a space for networking and collaboration among those with an interest in the Garden Tower Project’s mission. The goal is expanding food self-sufficiency, promoting homegrown vegetables and herbs that are:
  • organic
  • non-GMO
  • low-input
  • ecologically sustainable

Tom Tlusty tells me that the Garden Tower’s unique design capitalizes on “evaporative cooling and a large thermal mass”–making it possible to plant in hot temperatures normally prohibitive in a traditional garden plot.

So… it’s not too late to start gardening this season!

Top view of the Garden Tower.

Top view of the Garden Tower.

I’m so excited about this design that I ordered my own Garden Tower, and I’m picking it up from the Good Earth later today. I’m psyched to sow some crops I didn’t have room for, like beans and carrots. I’ll also scour local garden centers for leftover seedlings (probably quite sad and stressed by now, but maybe a little TLC would bring them along).

It’s nearly time to start fall crops, like kale, lettuce, peas, and spinach. That’s something I always intend to do and never seem to manage in the thick of late summer. But this is the year, with my sweet new protected microclimate as incentive.

Plus I’ll finally have livestock on my homestead, if only in the form of worms. I’m in heaven!

Time to harvest from the Garden Tower

Time to harvest from the Garden Tower

The only drawback I can see is the need for potting soil to ensure that the growing medium is not compacted in the barrel. I hate buying bagged soil for so many reasons. I’ve seen recipes for homemade potting soil. But being eager to jump in, I probably will break down and purchase. (If you’ve found a good peat-free variety available on the market, please leave it in the comments.)

The inventors believe their design will allow people of all abilities to garden in any clime. According to Garden Tower users in the arid Grand Canyon region, this model results in immense water savings. Tom says they used ten times less water with the Garden Tower than their traditional plot or raised bed.

Really can’t wait to dig in!

All photos courtesy of The Garden Tower Project.