My hands love the feeling of moist, living soil and well-made compost. The spongy, springy textures are a delight as I squeeze little clods between my fingers and feel them crumble. The smell of such soils and compost are heavenly, in my opinion, even though I know “eau de worm castings” will probably never be a top seller at the perfume counters. I haven’t spent much time tasting soils, though my husband was reading an article the other evening about the wine industry and the huge influence that the flavor of a soil has on the taste of the grapes and the wine, so perhaps I’ll start exploring soil flavors in more detail.
I’ve been up to my elbows in compost and garden soil quite a few times this past week as I divide perennials and seed and transplant for the fall/winter garden. As I’ve added compost to the garden beds, it’s gotten me thinking about how integral a component animals are to the health of my gardens.
I’m not sure of the actual numbers, but of the trillions of living organisms and microorganisms in a teaspoon of garden soil, I feel fairly certain that at least half or more than half fall into the animal classification in the plant-animal divide. Which makes the soil itself partly animal in nature. Then there’s the compost that my goats and donkeys make. It’s as good as any from the compost piles that I build with their manure – and less work on my part.
The nighttime pen for the goats and donkeys is on a slight slope. The hay they eat during morning and evening milking chores gets put in at the top of the pen, and then the debris – what they trample instead of eat – gets mixed with manure and urine and a bit of soil as it slowly migrates toward the lower fence. I have no idea what the average migration rate for this material is. What I do know is that by the time it reaches the bottom fence, we have perfect compost with some time-release goat pellet fertilizer mixed in.
I also clearly remember the first time I put my hands in a garden bed that I had composted cow manure on top of. In the vegetable garden I do some composting in place every year, picking a bed or section of bed that needs a rest and layering the weeds and old stalks there along with manure. The first year we had cows, I started using their manure for this process rather than the donkey manure. That next spring I forked away the remains of uncomposted sunflower stalks and pushed my hands in to check the feel of that bed. OH –MY–GOD! Spongy as I had never felt before. A rich, crumbly texture. Honestly, I wanted to roll in it, but decided that would compact the bed too much. Plus, I didn’t want to set a bad example for the dogs who get to be in the garden as long as they stay off the beds.
I understand now why biodynamic gardeners are so focused on cows. With their amazing digestive systems, cows are almost literally a walking compost pile of the highest order. (This is particularly true of grass and hay fed cows. Grains mess with those incredible digestive abilities.) Really, they are better than a compost pile, adding in even more life to the materials passing through their stomachs.
I also have been thinking about the symbiosis that oxygen breathing-in/carbon dioxide breathing-out animals have with carbon dioxide breathing-in/oxygen breathing-out plants. I begin to wonder why we’ve drawn so many lines between plants and animals. After all, each requires the other.
In Fritjof Capra’s book, The Web of Life, he describes how in the very early history of this planet, after the carbon dioxide-in/oxygen-out breathers (aka: the bacterial ancestors of plants) had gotten well established, the oxygen levels in the atmosphere built up so much that parts of the Earth’s atmosphere began to experience spontaneous combustion. Not good for biological organisms of any shape or size! The response was the quick evolution of oxygen-in/carbon dioxide-out breathers – the forerunners of animals. It’s a critical role that animals play here on Earth.
Without animals, plants would have much poorer quality soil, a spontaneously combusting atmosphere, and likely an array of other challenges making their lives impossible. It’s time to recognize the animal component, so essential to a healthy garden.