It’s all about the soil

The search for cake and tea on my birthday brought us to Glyn Mitchell, a soil expert in Jersey.  He happened to be sitting at a picnic table in a garden where my partner and I sat down to enjoy some afternoon tea at a Garden Open Day hosted by the National Trust.  Glyn showed us his Brix meter and how it can measure sugar content and hence vitality and taste in food.  He demonstrated the device on a cherry tomato that happened to be sitting on the table.  The measure was 0.  I asked him where the tomato had come from – obviously some supermarket – but he declined to tell us.  Instead, he offered to show us how enriching soil with microbes could benefit plant growth.  He took us into the walled vegetable garden and showed us two planter boxes.  Both had been planted at the same time.  One box looked as if a miniature jungle of broad bean plants were growing in it.  They were over a foot high and so dense, bursting out of the pot that you could hardly see the soil.  The other container had small seedlings still struggling to grow.  The soil in that box was from the ground beneath us, whereas the other one had been enriched with Glyn’s compost tea.  Microbes clearly made a difference to plant growth.

I was due to leave the island ten days later to return to Australia but I decided I would delay my departure if Glyn could teach me how to do this.  A week later, I had confirmation that Glyn would be able to take three days out of his schedule to teach us how to make compost, compost teas and extracts and to analyse soil under a microscope.  I postponed my flight to Sydney by two weeks.

It was an intensive three days.  We learned about plant succession, composting, the importance of carbon and nitrogen and how they come to be in our soil and how industrial agriculture is stripping our land of these and other vital nutrients.  Apparently, there are only six more growing seasons left in Jersey for the Jersey Royal potato.  The quest for profit has depleted the land.  Some fields have already been abandoned because nothing will grow in them.  The irony is that the Jersey Royal isn’t even a Jersey potato.  Its seed potatoes are imported from Scotland.

We built a compost pile and named it States of Jersey (that is the name of the Jersey government).  According to international composting standards, the pile needs to be turned at least 5 times (whenever it becomes too hot – max of 70ºC) and needs to maintain temperatures above 55º and below 70ºC for 15 days in order to kill off weed seeds and pathogens.

We created the pile on day one and turned it on day two and day three.  I did not know that turning the pile meant emptying the whole thing and laying out the compost on a tarp in three piles – the top layer, the core (the hottest part) and the compost that had been surrounding the core.  The piles then had to be put back together so that previously hot parts were now in cooler areas and vice versa.  Good for building arm muscles.

We both had a microscope to work with, and I was reminded of biology class at school.  The only difference was with modern technology, I could see what was on the slide on my laptop.  I could even video or photograph my specimen.  I struggled to get the focus right and kept seeing the dust floating on the surface of my eye.  I couldn’t get the two visual fields to merge into one, so in the end I just looked through one eye – it was much simpler and microscope work with glasses was already a challenge.  When I finally managed to adjust all the dials and knobs, a whole new world opened up – a sea of vibrating bacteria and flagellates, cillates zooming around as if they were on fast forward and nematodes squirming around, twisting and turning.  There were chopped up limbs of micro arthropods and even headless nematodes.  It is a vicious world down there.

We looked at various soil and compost samples.  Soil from a field sprayed with chemicals had hardly anything to see.  Even the compost from the zoo didn’t have much life in it, whereas Glyn’s compost from his garden was teeming with microbes.   It is these microbes that feed, nourish and protect plants and trees and result in a high BRIX value in vegetables and fruit.

The task at hand was counting all these creatures.  The nematodes were easy on a magnification of ten  – they were huge in comparison, but even on a magnification of 100, the bacteria were impossible to count.   There were too many dots buzzing around, so the sample had to be diluted by a factor of ten.  I managed the dilution but ended up with a greasy cover slip so had to do it all over again.  It took a long time to be able to distinguish between the good and bad fungi; and I’m still not certain I’m seeing some organic matter or if in fact, it is fungi.

Counting the microbes allows us to know how bacterial or fungal the sample is and whether there is sufficient life to sustain plant growth.  I will have to buy a microscope and do lots of practice before I can feel confident about the analysis.

Glyn suggested we set up a whatsapp group so that we can continue to update each other on the progress of the compost pile and eventually have a microbe count of the finished product as well as share data on any compost piles I create in Australia.  Our whatsapp group is called the Jersey Nematodes and so far, States of Jersey,  which has been turned 4 times, is doing better than a compost pile that Glyn recently instructed a group in Guernsey to build. Like the Aussie Kiwi rivalry, the Jersey Guernsey rivalry is alive and kicking.

Postscript

The Guernsey pile crashed because temperatures didn’t stay high enough, but thankfully States of Jersey was a success and will now rest until ambient temperature is reached before it is used to feed the plants and fields.