Our winter came a little later than the Upper Midwest's. Our helper came over for the first session of raking on Saturday. On Sunday the snow was falling rapidly, and the compost pile was full again, packed with leaves on top of the garden trash.
The freeze is good for composting, accelerating the rot of plant tissues. We have dozens of pears from our neighbor's tree in the compost, vines recently cut down, and now the leaves dampened by snow. Juicy fruit and fresh vines contribute their moisture and carbs to the mix, two great boosts for bacteria.
The old thinking involved making an ideal medium for raising earthworms and storing their egg cases. The new thinking centers on generating the microscopic life that the earthworms graze upon.
Many of you - if you care to admit it - thought that microscopic life stopped in the cold of winter. We freeze to keep food fresh, right? Not exactly. We freeze food to slow down the bacteria. There are bacteria for each temperature - heat-loving, moderate, and cold loving. Everything may slow down, but nothing really stops. In fact, the blanket of snow encourages even more life underneath, with its insulating qualities, its pure water crystals, and filtering or shutting off of life.
Leaves illustrate this effect. They gather around the bushes until spring. They seem to have lasted throughout the cold season, but they were weakened and moistened the entire time. As soon as the weather warms up, the riot of spring soil life finishes off the leaves, shreds them (springtails, earthworms), rots them, and turns that leaf mulch into aerated, tunneled, fertilized soil.
Our mulch project, possibly the equivalent of the Panama and Suez Canals put together, will bear fruit in the spring. Here are the mulched areas:
- The initial rose garden. Note the word "initial."
- The area under the front yard maple.
- The sunny garden, destined for straw bale gardening.
- The entire perimeter of the fence in the backyard.
- The vegetable garden.
- The corn patch.
- The perimeter of the dead tree, where vines will be planted.
Mulch decay is inevitable, due to snow and rain on top, soil creatures below. All winter the mulch is not being lost, as chemical gardeners fear. Instead, the mulch is fostering miles of fungi and billions of soil creatures. The fungi are the primary decomposers, and they love wood and cellulose above all foods. Bacteria love carbohydrates, such as the green matter from the garden.
The mulch will disappear in time, but that is not a loss. Fertile, productive soil will grow even more plants, and their roots will guide, direct, and nurture the microscopic life. Here is a likely conversation under the soil:
Root tip: "You want some carbon? I have carbon galore. But I need some things on my list if you could grow up to the mulch and out to the dead mouse to gather for me."
Fungus: "I would be glad to grow up to the surface and away from here to fetch those compounds for you. But I have to have carbon to grow. Give me carbon and I will tunnel away, dissolve the cells, and bring back exactly what you need."
Root tip: "I need phosphate for my roots to grow. Get me phosphate and it's a deal."
Root tip: "The P in NPK. Get some and be quick about it. I have the carbon you need."
Fungus: "It's a deal, but I must have that carbon to make it happen."
Because of the tight adsorption to soil particles, phosphate uptake requires that roots grow so they can maintain continuous and new contact with phosphorus. In addition, around 95 percent of all plants associate with mycorrhizal fungi, which provide the plant with phosphorus in return for the carbon in root exudates.
Lowenfels, Jeff; (2013-05-07). Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition (Kindle Location 1630). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.
The long hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi help plants obtain nutrients and water. In return, the fungus receives exudates from the plant.
Lowenfels, Jeff (2013-05-07). Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition (Kindle Locations 2165-2166). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.
Although phosphorus is probably the nutrient most moved by them, nitrogen, copper, and zinc are also brought to the root by mycorrhizal fungi. (These guys will do almost anything in return for carbon.)
Lowenfels, Jeff (2013-05-07). Teaming with Nutrients: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to Optimizing Plant Nutrition (Kindle Locations 2172-2173). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.