Gardens of Eden Hills
Gardens of Eden Hills
They call the soil here Eden;
slants and steeps
Hard to stand upon,
even without a burden . . .
from "The Bell Calls in the Town"
Mr. Berry's poem continues, "No more a perfect garden . . ."
People who have been farming this land for a while might recognize the symbolism here of mankind's fall from grace, as described in The Book of Genesis. Trying to make a living from these hillsides, combating drought, rocks, blue mold in tobacco, fescue toxicity in cattle, and crabgrass in everything, is a far cry from the picture in our mind of the original Garden of Eden.
But, farmers still work at it, and the results can be very gratifying. We can produce quality and yields of tobacco, cattle, and alfalfa that will rival anyone anywhere. All it takes is some careful management, some attention to detail, and some care.
Perhaps you are wondering what in the world I'm talking about. Owen County is in the heart of a portion of Kentucky that is informally known as the Eden Hills region. It is named for a type of soil that predominates in the area, which roughly corresponds to the Hills of the Bluegrass geographical region of the state. In fact, this soil type is found nowhere else in the world. The University of Kentucky has a research farm located in Owen County, aptly named the Eden Shale Farm, that conducts research and demonstrations on practices that are appropriate for the landscape.
The soil is a heavy clay-based soil, heavily eroded, with very little organic matter that doesn't have much water holding capactiy; (not a picture of Paradise to a farmer.) To deal with it, you are faced with some rather unique soil management responsibilities.
Think of clay as tiny sheets of thin glass. Eden series soils are based on clay whose sheets run parallel and extremely close together. As a result, these sheets are extremely vulnerable to collapsing onto each other. The problem with this is that the nutrients taken up by the plnt (in particular, nutrients such as potassium) are attached to the clay on those flat sheets of "glass." When the sheets do collapse, it traps these nutrients between the two layers of "glass" and thus renders it unavailable to the plant's roots. This is known, in soil science terms, as fixation.
Organic matter plays a critical role in the soiul, It acts to enhance the nutrient holding capacity because it holds onto large amounts of nutrients. it also enhances the water holding capactiy of the soil as well. This will help to prevent the clay collapse. We have very little natural organic matter in our soil. However, as long as there are plants or animals leaving behind organic matter, we are okay.
The problem comes when we till the same plot year after year or when large areas are exposed to the drying sun. By tilling and working the soil literally to death, we cause the breakdown of the organic matter in the soil. Similarly, if a piece of land is left fallow with no fertility or soil maintenance for many years the plants can't produce enough organic matter to offset the natural rate of decomposition. As a result, the soil causes the plant population to thin and exposes the soil to the drying wind and sun. All of these scenarios hasten the collapse of our type of clay. Thus, this ground becomes much less productive.
What can you do about it? Here's several suggestions:
- Maintain the organic matter in the soil by adding anumal waste.
- Sow cover crops.
- Limit the number and frequency of tillage operations. Tilling the soil too much can break down the natural structure. Roto-tillers are particularly bad about this.
- Sow a green manure crop every so often, (a crop with heavy top growth that is meant to be turned under.)
- Maintain healthy plant growth. Keep fertility at good levels, control pests (insects, diseases, and weeds,) and manage the plant so that it grows well. A healthy plant will have a healthy root system that will help keep the soil in good working shape.
If you suspect a problem, get a soil test and ask for the organic matter determination. This will give you an idea of your soil's health. (Technical information from an article by Dennis Hancook, formerly UK Extension Associate for Precision Agriculture, currently University of Georgia Forage Specialist.)
By the way, the entire Berry poem is in a book entitled "Sabbaths," by Wendell Berry, copyrighted 1987, North Point Press. Used with permission.
How to Take a Soil Test
. . . soil is the basis for all human life . . .
"Man, the Unknown"
Dr. Alexis Carrel
1912 Nobel Prize Laureate
The University of Missouri has a rather extensive list of publications on soil management, particularly in the area of soil compaction.
Sustainable Soil Management - This extensive publication covers basic soil properties and management steps needed in building and maintaining healthy soils.
ATTRA Soil & Fertility Series - Several publiations from The Appropriate Technology and Transfer for Rural Areas website.
Soil and Water Conservation Society - An organization devoted to the conservation of soil, water and, related natural resources.
Plant Nutrition Institute - Information from the perspective of an industry-based fertilizer marketing group.
"Back to Basics" Soil Fertility Information - An information source on soil fertility and fertilizer management from an industry - based group. Probably less academic and more farm oriented than the PPI site. Try your hand at the soil fertility quiz.
Conservation Technology Information Center (CTIC) - A national database of conversation related materials.
"This thing of soil conservation involves more than laying out a few terraces and diversion ditches and sowing to grass and legumes, it also involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil, he will save it."
Prominent Clark County
Farmer & Southdown
Interested in finding out a more scientific description of the Eden and related soil series? If so, go to the USDA-NRCS Official Soil Series Descriptions, developed at the Statistical Laboratory at Iowa State University.