From Dirt to Soil

It has been our dream that the Inundo Model Farm would demonstrate what is possible as we wisely steward the land and all the natural resources that God has given us like sun, rain, organic material, and seed. It is vital that when people come to visit the farm, there is on display an abundance of life being cultivated.

We also love to demonstrate the importance of the seasons and the miraculous organic regeneration on a yearly basis through spring planting, summer growth, autumn harvest, and winter rest. 

As our summer maize field came to an end, Dan and Kerry were ready to transition to a time of relationship building and reporting on the Canadian side. This strategic time was drastically affected by COVID with meetings cancelled or transitioned to a Zoom format and a lot of their time spent indoors in isolation and quarantine in the cold Canadian spring. Even in the midst of COVID and with the Wiens on the other side of the world, life at Inundo continued. Before they left for Canada, Dan planted a cover crop on the maize field and the future site for the vegetable garden. The cover crop sprouted and grew into a beautiful swaying field of oats and vetch. This is the miracle of life; a seed planted sprouts and grows regardless of the politics or circumstances around it. While so much crisis abounded worldwide, the Inundo cover crop slowly fixed nitrogen in the soil and built up a huge amount of biomass to contribute towards the mulch cover for the next season.

After four months in Canada, the Wiens were ecstatic to get back to Inundo, cut the cover crop and begin to establish the vegetable garden. Being able to get back into the garden after a hectic two week government imposed quarantine in Joburg was such a gift. The fresh air and soil really does heal frantic souls. 

We were starting with a blank slate; a terrace cut into the slope 35 years ago was a perfect location for the garden. Although covered with grass, the cover crop helped to control the sod layer. We also ensured that the terrace got plenty of sun and had good access to our rain water tanks and our compost station.  

Dan laid out the structure of the garden with three sections by hammering white pegs into the ground. These white pegs would guide our entire vegetable strategy of six month rotations between fruit vegetables, leaf vegetables and root vegetables. A Farming God’s Way garden is always divided into three sections.

Dan can’t get the fork to move deeper while fracturing the soil.

There was much excitement on July 24th for our first day of breaking ground for our vegetables.  We didn’t really know what to expect. As a farmer you develop a relationship with your soil as you work with it. We had worked hard in the maize field so had an idea of the challenges we were facing for our veg garden…  Still we were in for a few more surprises. We knew the soil was marginal with little carbon content and lack of micro organisms, but we didn’t know how significant a factor the clay content of the soil would be. Vegetables are discriminating when it comes to soil. The fine root systems are not designed to break through compacted hard soil. 

When planting vegetables, the soil needs to be fractured with a fork to ensure there are channels for the vegetable roots. Ease of fracturing can give you an indication of the quality of your soil. Fracturing never involves inverting the soil. The fork is inserted into the soil and rocked back and forth to crack hard deposits but the soil structure is not altered.

In all our enthusiasm on that first day, we began the fracturing process for every line of vegetables and hit rock literally – we could not get a fork into our soil. In fact, if a 6ft man stood on the curved shoulders of the fork and jumped up and down, the fork would barely move deeper into the soil. We often correct people when talking about dirt … it’s soil, we say. But in this case we were digging in dirt, because to call it soil implies that a level of malleability and fertility are present. This dirt had next to none of either. We were attempting to plant in red, compacted clay with almost no organic matter whatsoever.

It was a discouraging process. Lines of vegetables which should have taken 30mins to fracture were taking hours. There was only one solution… and it did not include ploughing! We got out the picks, and fractured with picks instead of forks. It was hard, time-consuming work. Sifiso, one of our casual staff was a huge contributor here with his muscular strength and endurance. There were times we were tempted to give up on the fracturing. Kerry even ended up with bruises on her inner thighs from jumping on a fork so much. We stayed on course trusting that the investment we make now would result in future benefits.

Planting came as a welcome relief after fracturing. First, we applied our inputs – wood ash and homemade compost. Here is where our compost really saved us time. For many of our vegetables we only needed to apply a band of compost to the surface of the soil and plant seeds and seedlings directly into those bands.  After all our planting was done we applied a thick layer of mulch avoiding any areas where we were waiting for seeds to emerge.

The visible results of our first garden are anything but spectacular. Growth has been very slow, and some of our seedlings couldn’t make a go of it. You can easily see what parts of the garden are slightly better than others by the size of the plants. There is huge variability in growth rate.

We can feel the soil changing as time goes on.

We could be discouraged, but we are choosing not to be. The fact that our veg demo is starting on extremely poor soil is a wonderful opportunity for us. No one will be able to tell us that the reason for our (future) success is because we started with great soil! On the contrary, our story will be one of working with God’s very good creation to see healing of the soil – increasing organic matter, teeming soil life, friability, water-holding capacity, decreasing acidity, etc.

Even now as we walk on the garden the soil underfoot is starting to feel softer. When we replant the whole garden for our summer veg rotations, we are looking forward to seeing the improvement in our plants after months of looking after the soil. We often say you can’t teach what you haven’t done. This journey increases our learning and experience

We have many more stories and teaching points that will help others in their own journey of starting to grow in what is…

dirt today, and soil tomorrow!

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Flourishing Land, Flourishing People, Flourishing Communities.

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