by Phil Vogelzang and Katy McCoy
Enough about seeds and starts. All that counts for nothing if we don’t have the proper dirt. New this year the Corner is selling 25 lb bags of Roger Short’s Magical Soil for $9.99 – the perfect soil to jumpstart your plant starts. In this article we intend to get to the bottom of the magic in this Center Valley substrate and instruct you how to best use it. To get our answers, we’ve cornered the “dirtologist” himself, Roger Short, on his 400 acre Short’s Family Farm where he raises his famed 100% grass-fed beef that we so enjoy.
A man who knows a thing or two about soil. Roger and his family have been providing a variety of planting soils and amendments to the county’s appreciative farmers and gardeners since the early 1980s. In addition to Magical Soil, Short’s Family Farm sells potting soil, top soil, pure “peat”, compost, 2 manure preparations, pin chips, sawdust, bark, sand and pitrun. But before your head spins too fast, today our only goal is to understand his Magical Soil.
First, how to use it: We have chosen to start selling the Magical Soil because it’s the perfect medium to jumpstart and feed the wonderful organic starts you have carefully chosen and bought from Midori and Red Dog. When you transplant the starts, work in a handful of the Magical Soil into the dirt around the base of the start. If you are planting a raised vegetable garden, growers have found that you can plant into full strength Magical Soil. Although it is quite nutrient rich, Roger claims you can plant seed into the Magical Soil although you could also opt for his Potting Soil, which he makes by diluting his Magical Soil with less rich soil. You could do the same.
Next, what’s it made of? The simple answer is 45% “peat”, 45% compost and 10% sand (which is added for improved handling and drainage), but it’s more complicated if we want to understand the “peat” and the compost components.
“PEAT”: We keep putting peat in quotation marks because although we loosely refer to the soil in Center and Beaver valleys as “peat”, really what we’re talking about is “muck”, Semiahmoo muck to be precise. True peat is made slowly over eons as submerged plants partially decay in wetland oxygen-deprived conditions, the classic vegetation being Sphagnum moss, thus the term “peat moss”. Muck is also made in anaerobic wetland conditions over eons, but the partially decomposed organic material comes from dead marine life and algae sediment on the bottom of ancient bays, lakes, and wetlands. Roger has heard the lakebed of Chimacum Valley contained an estimated 50,000 different organisms and it’s 53 feet in places (although after ~12 feet the muck gets really mucky).
The properties of muck and peat are similar. Neither are particularly nutrient rich in themselves, but they share an ability to hold onto water and nutrients and pass them onto plant starts as needed. Both also burn and have historically been used for fuel. Underground peat and muck fires can be extensive and contribute to greenhouse gases. Finally, because of their their abilities to bioaccumulate metals, both have been used traditionally in smelting iron ore. In fact, we’re told that the old smelter in Irondale obtained its iron from our local muck (so that’s why Irondale is called Irondale!).
COMPOST: Compost meanwhile is made over a short period of time (days rather than millennia) thanks to the aerobic conditions. It is also the result of organic material decomposing, but whereas muck and peat are sterile without living organisms, compost is packed with a variety of living organisms including aerobic bacteria that produce the nitrification. Compost as opposed to muck is filled with nutrients and is a renewable resource.
Roger’s father began composting on a big scale in the 80’s using the manure from his dairy cows. Although Roger’s cows are now grown for beef, the concept is the same. He mixes his grass-fed cow’s bacteria rich manure with various organic material including old hay (not Timothy which is higher in seed), bedding material, feed waste and grass clippings. Roger monitors the temperature of the heat generating process to kill the vast majority of weeds but intentionally stops the process before all the soil life is destroyed – remember, we’re going after magic.
And now for the MAGIC part (with a little hand-waving). It sounds as if the magic starts with the muck, especially if you ask David Jubb, a self-described neurobehavioral physiologist, microsporist, and nutrition expert who has been shipping Roger’s muck, 5 gallons at a time, to California for almost a decade where he uses it somehow to augment his human health optimization treatments. David made a special trip in 2005 to see Roger and test his soils. Somewhat of an odd couple, David and Roger spent a half day together talking diatoms and colloids. Evidently David was very impressed and left happy that he had found the elixir he was searching for.
When Roger is asked about the magic, he starts talking about the synergism that occurs between the Semiahmoo and the compost, a 2+2=6 sort of a thing. The compost has the goods, but it is the muck that delivers it. He also thinks there is somthing special about the diatoms, unicellular phytoplankton with rigid silica cell walls that have been around at least since the early Jurassic period. Perhaps the silica structure has something to do with the muck’s delivery capabilities. Not metabolic slouches – diatoms were early adaptors of photosynthesis and they have recently been shown to be one of the first, if not the first, to come up with the urea cycle.
But enough esoterica. What does this all means for your plant starts? Basically, your plant starts will thrive. Seed from here, plant starts from here, and now soil from here — that’s going to produce some mighty fine FOOD FROM HERE! Happy planting. And thanks Roger for all you do!
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