Summer’s muggy heat is easing up. Fall is here. You can feel a certain coolness in the evenings now. We’re definitely transitioning from summer in to fall, the start of our winter growing season.
It’s time to dig! …well, figuratively speaking, that is, if you’re in the “Krome Gravelly Soils”, as the USGS euphemistically classifies our solid limestone rock base, with its light dusting of soil on top.
Large commercial farms, and some small farms, hire the services of a ‘rock plow’ to break up the rock and release the soil trapped in the many pores characteristic of limestone. The rock plow is a big yellow bulldozer, specially equipped with a big solid steel ‘plow tip’. It’s mounted on the front of the machine. The plow is run repeatedly back and forth across a field, each time ‘slicing’ and breaking up a thin layer of rock and loosing the soil to a depth of about 6 or 8 inches. This becomes the planting media for the year’s crops. Many growers repeat this process every year or two. The rock plow was patented in 1943 by two local growers – check out the patent record here.
Unlike organic growers, chemical growers treat the land not as living soil, but as a substrate to hold plant roots, expecting to add everything the plant needs for survival. This is because limestone is alkaline (has a high pH), and plant nutrients are more tightly bound in the soil and not as readily available to plants. This is where organic matter, microorganisms, and the soil chemistry immediately around the plant’s root hairs comes into play.
One of the basic tenets of an organic farm is nurturing the life of the soil. So organic farmers use techniques such as composting and cover crops to help build organic matter and provide a good environment for soil microorganisms to flourish. In a healthy soil, the ‘bad’ bugs and fungi are kept under control by ‘good’ bugs and fungi, in a natural balance. This also helps maintain more acidic conditions in the immediate area around the plant’s root hairs, where all the nutrient absortion action takes place.
A good compost pile goes a long way toward recycling nutrients, reducing the size of our landfill, and buildingup soil health. This process can go on year-round. Cover crops are used with several goals – reducing weeds during the off-season, building up organic matter, and, depending or the cover crop used, reducing some pests and diseases.
Here in South Florida, we don’t grow many vegetable crops in the summer. Heck, we don’t even want to be outdoors much in the summer (except maybe at the beach). It gets pretty grueling out there in mid-summer. Although some things grow well in summertime, like okra, cowpeas and their relatives, and bitter melon, to name a few, most of the common food crops we like to eat will not. Cover crops are the perfect solution, and at Bee Heaven Farm we take full advantage of them.
So, having sowed our SudeX sorghum-sudangrass hybrid cover crop seed back in June, we sat back (not really – we were busy with our avocado crop, catching up on paperwork and other sundy tasks). After a false start & reseeding due to a period of no rain, it grew to about 6 feet tall. Then it was time to mow it down and till it in.
But wait! The rains were in full summer monsoon mode. The soils were completely saturated. You can’t work the soil when it’s in that condition, or you will kill the soil life and destroy its structure (tilth – see last year’s post). So we waited, increasingly anxoiusly, until we had 3 days with no rain. Luckily, these same limestone soils drain very well, and finally, this past weekend, we were able to mow the cover crop down. We finished tilling yesterday. Now we wait for a week or so, to allow weed seeds to germinate. Then we’ll till one more time, form up the beds, put in the irrigation, and plant them seeds!
In the meantime, we’re preparing the plant starts, for transplanting and for our annual heirloom tomato starts sale at FTG’s Edible Garden Festival October 23-24. See you there!