Grow the Soil

I once moved in to a house with a couple of keen gardeners who had a lovely if somewhat shady vegetable garden, but nothing seemed to be doing particularly well. Lack of sun was a contributing factor, but it wasn’t enough to explain the timid kale, the yellowing tomatoes, and the threadbare parsley patch. Even the comfrey wasn’t particularly robust.

Bending down I dug through a hard crust to find the soil thin and sandy, with virtually no composted material. It confirmed for me the fact that before growing plants, you must grow the most important crop of all - soil.

The standard was set high for me when I met soil biologist and organic farmer Jade Woodhouse, at her ‘soil growing’ workshop near Dorrigo.

“Compost making is an art,” she said, springing around with seeming unbounded energy. Squatting down she sniffed a handful of dirt from around a broccoli. “Lacking magnesium,” she said definitively.

The key to fertile soil for Jade is not your average compost bin’shalf-broken down lumps, but something far more potent – humus.

Without getting too technical, humus is basically the end of the breakdown of organic matter. It is dark brown or black in colour, much heavier than compost and has little or no smell.

“It’s smooth and silky,” Jade said, “Something you would be happy to caress all day.”

The beauty of humus is that it makes minerals much more available to plants, and also for absorption in the human gut.

“People’s physical, emotional and spiritual elements are healthily restored or improved just by consuming nutrient rich fresh food that has been grown in biological soil,” Jade enthused.

It is a bold claim, but one borne of personal experience.

Jade and her partner began restoring the soil of an ex-cattle farm not long after her cancer diagnosis. For the first two years Jade added compost and organic matter to almost impenetrable clay. It continued to struggle. The moment she added humus it was like a ‘bomb had dropped,’ releasing billions of fertility workers.

In an ah-ha moment Jade realised that it wasn’t the food that she ate so much as the soil it was grown in that would heal her. Shebegan eating only what was produced from her garden, and at the end of five months, was given the cancer all clear.

Watching Jade build a humus-making system is like watching a master chef prepare a seven-course meal. As well as the right temperature and airflow, humus requires a specific ratio of both fine and coarse green and dry materials, compost, rock dust, different herbs for minerals, weeds, ash/charcoal, activators from manure or molasses, and any number of other materials, with diversity being the key. Rather than an ongoing affair, humus making is best done in one session, and then left to stew for a number of months.

I can’t say I’ve created perfect humus yet but I’ve never forgotten Jade’s last words:

“You are doing the most important thing you could possibly do, for the earth, for yourself and future generations of all living beings – you are learning to make humus.”

Find Simply Natural Organic Farmand Jade’s soil growing bookon Facebook.