In a healthy ecosystem (e.g. an untouched forest) nature has established an ongoing carbon cycle with a constant supply of dead organic matter (branches, leaves) falling to the ground where it is being transformed back to become new building material and food for all successive plant life.
With a highly specialised crop system like an olive grove, orchard or even veggie garden, we have to work very hard towards generating a carbon cycle. If we‘d only ever extract fruit, veggies or olives and never gave anything back to sustain a carbon cycle, the soil would be depleted of essential organic matter very soon and therefore having a negative impact on the soil and in future crops.
Taking nature as an inspiration, it is important to observe and understand natural processes and then imitate them. The following 5 steps are showing the regenerative techniques we’re currently using to achieve this:
1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER
The most abundantly available organic matter is produced by the olive tree itself in the form of leaves and branches.
After pruning the trees, we put all the branches and twigs through a shredder and scatter the wood chips / leaves on the ground along the drip line of the tree.
Along the drip line we’ll find the most active root zone. This is where the microbial activity is highest. The microorganisms that are present in the root zone now colonize the added organic material and thus enter into a nutrient exchange with the root system of the trees. This way, we return the lost biomass (from old leaves or pruned branches) back to the natural nutrient cycle.
Why aren’t we simply burning the pruned branches like everybody else in this region?
Even though shredding the branches and putting them back as wood chips is a much more laborious process, it is also exponentially more beneficial for the health of our soil.
The act of burning organic matter is interrupting the carbon cycle as the carbon material is lost to the atmosphere and therefore can’t be used by the microorganisms to produce more nutrients for new plant growth.
Plus, by adding organic matter to the soil, we’re actively boosting the plant’s ability to store atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) in the soil (carbon sequestration) and therefore reducing the impact of CO2 as a greenhouse gas instead of adding more CO2 to the atmosphere by burning precious organic matter.
2. PRODUCTION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)
The production of high quality compost (= full with microbial life, especially fungi) is the basic ingredient for a successful regeneration of any land-based ecosystem.
With the active assistance of the present microbiology in a complete compost, we can re-stabilize even the most depleted soils and bring them back to their full, natural potential.We’re using a hot composting process to do this. It is an aerobic process that needs to be monitored regularly in terms of humidity and temperature.
The compost building process involves layering three different materials:
1. MANURE – with a high nitrogen content, ideally from herbivores such as cows, horses, goats, sheep, rabbits (but chicken manure works, too).
2. GREEN – material with nitrogen content such as green leaves, grass clippings, green stems, kitchen waste, etc.
3. BROWN – carbon material such as dry leaves, dry branches, straw, etc..
By using the right ratio between these materials (normally 10% manure, 30% green and 60% brown) and a good water management of the pile (we want to reach 50% humidity level), we’re able to produce a high-quality compost that contains all the beneficial groups of microorganisms (especially fungi). These microorganisms are going to build a healthy soil, transform minerals and organic matter in plant available nutrients, and protect the plant from pests and diseases.
The type of microorganisms can be determined both quantitatively and qualitatively with the help of a microscope in our soil lab. This is important because it means that you always know exactly which microbiology you are working with, as not all microorganisms are useful for every purpose.
Depending on the type of application, the finished compost can now be spread directly onto the garden beds or around the fruit/ or olive trees. This will positively favor plant growth through the microbial activity around the root zone. In contrast to a classic NPK-fertilization process (where usually “only” certain elements such as nitrogen, phosphorus or potassium are added in the form of salts), the compost application has a far more holistic effect, as the microorganisms also provide the plant with all other nutrients and trace elements and protect them from pest and diseases.
Like with the plants, these additional nutrients and trace elements will be able to nourish and heal our bodies in a holistic sense. We’ll be writing more on nutrient-dense food soon, trying to outline how the beneficial microorganisms in the soil do affect the micro-biome in our guts and how important it is today to know where our food is coming from or how it is being grown.
The image above shows two fava bean plants from our experimental bed in the garden. They were sown at the same time and had about the same height when they were harvested. The picture to the right shows a massively enlarged root ball. Also the growth of the stems (5 instead of 3) speaks for itself.
3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid extracted from solid compost)
If one cannot produce enough solid compost with the relatively labour-intensive hot composting process (e.g. for larger areas / systems), there is the option of working with compost extract. The solid compost is placed in a textile bag and “swirled” in a large water tank by blowing air into the water from below. This way, the microorganisms present in the solid compost such as bacteria, fungi strands (hyphae), amoeba or nematodes will be transferred into a liquid medium.
After a short time, the extract can be applied directly or used for irrigating a garden or an olive grove (i.e. fed into an irrigation system).
Depending on the amount of organic matter in the soil, the added microorganisms will settle there and thus favour the soil building process and the nutrient uptake of the plants.
4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA (liquid extracted from solid compost)
The brewing process of compost tea is more time-consuming ( 24h / 48h) because, in this case, we need to add food to encourage microorganisms to reproduce in the liquid medium. The application of compost tea pursues a different goal than the administration of compost extract. Sprayed directly onto the plant, the compost tea forms a protective layer (a so-called biofilm) on the stem/leaf surfaces of the plant and protects it from pests and diseases, especially on leaves and fruits. With a sufficiently high ratio of beneficial fungal biomass, compost tea serves as a natural fungicide, i.e. it can prevent or cure most types of fungal infestation on leaves.
On our farm, we use both compost extracts and compost teas – both in our gardens and olive groves.
Like with solid compost, the same rule of thumb applies to both types of liquid compost (compost extract & compost tea):
A complete beneficial micro-biome provides the soil with the right biology responsible for building healthy soils and that will in return generate healthy plants. This way, we increase the natural resilience of the plants, so it can resist diseases better and is consequently less likely to be attacked by pests.
5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY
As long as an ecosystem is not stabilized, i.e. as long as it cannot provide itself with all the necessary nutrients or defend itself against diseases, we must repeat the application of organic matter and solid or liquid composts. In our case, we need to fix many years of conventional agriculture practices where the use of toxic chemicals and the lack of soil management were the “normal”.
The good news is that we can regenerate damaged soils in a relatively short period of time if we manage to support and imitate the cycle of life properly.
If you wish to bring your own soil back to its full potential, it is imperative to first spend some time observing the place, its topography, the water flow, its current vegetation and more to draw the right conclusions for your long-term treatment of the land.
We will write more about the observing process / how to read a landscape in another article. For now, let us subsummize the main “ingredients” for a healthier micro-biome and therefore a richer soil:
1. SPREADING ORGANIC MATTER
We’re helping nature by imitating / speeding up the natural process of decay and regrowth
2. PRODUCTION / APPLICATION OF BIOLOGICALLY ACTIVE COMPOST (solid)
We’re actively “producing” the right set of beneficial microorganisms and adding them to our gardens or fruit trees to improve soil and plant health
3. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST EXTRACT (liquid)
We’re multiplying these beneficial microorganisms to improve soil health on a bigger area
4. PRODUCTION OF COMPOST TEA (liquid)
We’re actively re-producing a particular set of microorganisms (i.e. fungi) for a specific purpose, mainly for protecting plants against pests or disease
5. REPEAT POINTS 1-4 REGULARLY
While a single application of organic matter / compost is good – a regular and recurring application of organic matter in combination with the right set of microorganisms will work wonders!