Soil Basics

Review of Titia Posthuma's Talk on the Essence of Nutrition in Agriculture

by Rosemary Tayler, March 20, 2017

On Sunday, March 19, Titia Posthuma, a dedicated biodynamic farmer and teacher in Eastern Ontario, shared her insights and understanding on the connections between nutrition and agriculture at the Earth Haven Learning Centre in Thomasburg, Ontario. Ms Posthuma looked at this subject from several perspectives including human, animal, plant and soil nutrition.

In my opinion, one of the most interesting references made during the workshop was the TED Talk by Rob Knight called “How our microbes make us who we are.” During his talk, Knight emphasizes that microbes in and on human beings affect behaviour, health and well being.

I was reminded about how similar the beneficial relationship between humans and microbes is to how plants rely on microbes in the soil for nutrients. In fact this plant/microbe relationship is also mutually beneficial. The plant produces sugars made through photosynthesis in the leaves; these sugars are transported down the stem and into the fine root hairs where the microbes can access them. In exchange, these microbes provide nitrogen-rich organic nutrients which the plant needs for building proteins and other substances. And again I heard that the nitrogen supplied by fertilizers does not have the same biological qualities as nitrogen supplied by these microbes.

Another point I noted in the workshop was the observation that animals such as cows have a cognitive ability to be selective in what they choose to eat. For example, cows can select higher quality grain over lower quality grain. Humans need to be more discerning in their choice of foods.

Ms. Posthuma shared that Rudolf Steiner, who introduced the basic philosophical and practical methods for biodynamic agriculture in the 1920s, claimed that complete digestion includes the full breakdown of ingested foods and the full rebuilding of essential nutrients.

This digestive process in humans is somewhat similar to the annual decomposing and rebuilding processes that go on in topsoil. In summer and fall, the leaves start to decompose and form a nutrient and microbial rich layer called humus. Plants with deeper roots, such as trees, bring minerals up from the subsoil and over time these minerals make their way into the stable humus layer and are passed on into the microbes and surrounding plants, and ultimately into animals and humans.

The workshop closed with this emphasis on building stable humus with lots of organic matter. This stable humus is a way of building microbial housing so to speak and must include a balance of both bacteria and fungi. One of the key messages I took away from this talk was that as farmers and gardeners we need to is grow more soil. The quality and health of our soils and its microbes is directly linked to our own health and well being.

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Tips on Building a Compost Pile

1. Layers of brown and green plant matter - This includes autumn leaves, grass clippings, wood chips and saw dust. Wood ash can be added in small amounts but avoid ash from burned plastic. It is wise to avoid diseased material as the seeds might survive the high heat of the compost process.

2. Layers of kitchen vegetable scraps - This includes carrot tops, potato peelings, apple cores and stems. 

3. Layers of soil as inoculant - Soil contains all the bacteria and fungi needed to create compost.  Avoid human and pet feces because disease organisms might survive even the high heat of the decomposition process. 

4. Place your compost pile in the shade, near trees - The tree roots love the nourishment from the compost; they may impose into the pile but they are easily trimmed back each year. The heat required for decomposition is from the bacteria in the pile, not the sun. The shade keeps the pile from drying out.

5. Ensure adequate but not too much water -Do not let the pile dry out and do not let the pile get soaking wet. Too much water results in not enough air, creating a soggy mess. Too little water slows down the degradation.

6. Add egg shells, even clam or lobster shells -Shells are excellent sources of calcium. If the shells are crushed before being added to the pile, they decompose quickly. Otherwise they can easily be crushed and added into the garden beds with the completed compost.

7. No meat or dairy products - Avoid meat and dairy products as these attract rodents.

8. Twigs help with air flow - Air is a crucial factor inside a compost pile. Oxygen feeds friendly oxygen-loving (aerobic) bacteria. If there is not enough oxygen, unfriendly anaerobic bacteria take over. These anaerobic bacteria are slower working and in addition to producing useful products, they produce ammonia-like substances and end-products like hydrogen sulphide, which smells like rotten eggs. 

9. Layers of manure from friendly animals - Modest amounts of manure bring billions of friendly bacteria and these bacteria multiply and provide the heat needed for decomposition.

10. Biodynamic compost preparations - After building your pile with many layers from the above list, insert one dose (a teaspoon) of each of the following biodynamic preparations: chamomile, dandelion, nettle, oak bark, yarrow and valerian. Then spray the pile with valerian preparation to seal it off and bring in the Warmth Element. 

11. Turning the piles brings fresh air to the microbes - While turning is optional, it maybe necessary if the pile gets too wet in which case add more dried leaves in layers. After the temperature completely cools down, the compost is ready for use. 


As written by Rosemary Tayler, Celestial Planting Calendar 2016


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