Introducing fertility inputs to the soil is usually seen as a good thing- nitrogen, carbon, and potassium are the most common, and many people use compost, manure, or wood chips as inputs with these elements. In our enthusiasm to build fertility at EEC Forest Stewardship, during the early days, we said “yes” to a few offered free inputs which, on reflection, might have been a naive impulse. The long term costs of adding biomass from outside a holistic system can be underestimated- here are some examples we’re struggling with at EEC.
It was late winter, and I wanted to get a start on veggie gardens by the house for the upcoming growing season. It had taken over a month to dig out all the rhododendron on the site. We removed them because they were very toxic to goats, and they did not priduce anything people could eat, so we dug them out. Should have sold them, but it was already enough work to get them out. The we were left with a tattered plastic covered mulch bed with some large holes. A neighbor offered free composted goat manure from her barn. I said yes, knowing how good the manure would be to jump-start the gardens. In general, manures are great inputs for your soil, especially gardens, which are often employed in growing vegetables, which require a lot of inputs to produce consistently year after year.
A dump trailer arrived with the rich brown and black soil, I saw some paddock gravel sprinkled in, but didn’t care so much, as the manure was at a perfect rate of decomposition for the gardens. The trailer backer right onto the garden location and dumped about two tons of ready to garden soil. Instant garden! I was thrilled, and began planning out all the patches and rows for my first ever garden. That was 2014.
A few weeks later another offer from the same barn came for free manure compost. This soil was from a different barn, and seemed more composted, darker in color, showing more carbon base. I asked that it go on the edge of my land outside the fence, for easy access with a truck when we needed some. It worked well as a staging area for biomass (with permission from the neighbor). I would bring my 10 gallon pots to the soil pile, fill up, and return them to the greenhouse for planting. Some of the soil was simpy shoveled into the back of the pickup and driven to a site on the land where a raised bed was going in, or fresh soil was needed to amend fruit trees, etc. That rich manure compost went to many areas of the land, and fostered some great young plants into fruition. But the soil brought something else with it, and we did not find out what until it was too late.
I honestly don’t know if the soil came with it or not, the seeds of this tenacious weed spread quickly thorough any landscape where it is introduces, and can lay dormant for years. I’m talking about common bind weed, or morning glory. It’s a vine with a lot of reach- over 30 feet below ground, with roots that bear tiny hair like rootlets, which can form new plants easily if left in the soil after the larger roots are pulled out. In short, you can’t weed them out like most other plants. They thrive on disturbed soil, and love a good pruning back, which then stimulated the rootlets underground to grow faster. You may think you only have some on the edge of your land, but it reaches under the soil, across the lawn 30 feet, then pops up in your garden, then under the ground another 30 feet to your orchard, throwing up new sprouts along the way. A truly abundant species, in the worst way.
Morning glory has been present at EEC for five years now, and has spread across the entire upper 3rd of our property. It’s not covering everything, not at all, as I pull most of it up, and let the sheep eat the rest, or most of it. However, the plant spreads under ground, and since I initially took soil from the infected pile, and dispersed it around the landscape, it’s come on 5x as strong. Where the sheep can get at it, things are managed, and the spread has stopped. In the kitchen gardens, I have to spend 4x as much on weeding. In other parts of the property, I won’t know it’s there until the white flowers pop out in late summer. Cone flowers form, seed is inevitable, so I have to throw away any flowering plants I pull.
Over the past few years, I’ve stopped moving soil around from the gardens, and quarantined older potted plants. One is photoed at the start of this post- a young river birch which is now hosting the unwanted weed. I’ve since watched many more bind weed populations springing up around our grater area, so the seeds might have already been in the area, and just spread into my soil once it arrived. I cannot confirm this, but the weed is here now, and ready to take over. It’s more work I don’t need, but a necessity to prevent complete takeover, especially in the food gardens. It’s the current worst offender, next to blackberry, which at least offers a sweet treat in late summer. But weeds are just the beginning- what other unwanted companions can be lurking in other biomass inputs?
Where the composted manure pile lay, we began staging all our biomass; including hauled in logs and brush, which were then placed into different areas of the property in need of woody debris (like bare spots caused by erosion from increasing heavy rains). I did check all the brush and logs for invasive such as beetles, fungus, and weeds. But can you ever really be sure of your source when it comes to biomass? Full logs betray most rot and fungus if you look close and know what to look for- I’ll not get into that today, but here’s a great website to learn more.
The two main fungi which are bad news here in The Pacific Northwest are honey fungus (Armillaria mellea), a parasitic fungus causing an intensive white rot, signifying the death of tree. Considered to be one of the most dangerous parasites known to trees. The other is laminated root rot, Coniferiporia weirii (formerly Phellinus weirii), a fungus (may also be called P. sulphurascens in some reports). Infection spreads from tree to tree, eventually leading to root decay. Trees are infected and killed regardless of individual vigor. It attacks mostly firs, and since our forests are dominated by the Douglas fir, and it’s the tree in timber commercial harvesting, it’s considered a huge threat.
How would inputting biomass from outside our land invite these fungi? Well, if you’ve ever said “yes” to free wood chips from a local arborists, you might have invited it with open arms. The risk of wood chips being infected cannot easily be gauged, but think of this- most arborists are cutting down diseased or otherwise compromised trees. If they know the true cause of the rot, they might be able to self quarantine infected wood, by staging it in a contained facility- but there is not anything like that set up in our area (that i know of) for the simple fact that fungus like the laminated root rot can live on in dead wood for decades. If you were to lay that wood down on the ground somewhere, the fungus would travel in the soil to the nearest healthy tree; wood chips would infect in the same way on your land, so watch out!
We’ve covered two major input sources which can have drastic consequences for your land if you invite them in. Keep in mind there is a host of bacteria which can also hitch a ride in biomass, as well as parasites (for animals and plants). Does this mean don’t get inputs? No, but it does mean really think hard about where you source your materials from, and be very weary of free biomass- it’s usually tainted with no legitimate place to go. I’ll share one more example, not a fertility input, but another free biomass I turned down, with better foresight.
Our pond is dug into glacial till- meaning it will never fully fill, and hold that volume of water without being lined in some way. We’ve priced out thick liners, and that’s expensive- as well as easy to puncture and damage. The best option would be clay, and there is a lot of blue dolomite clay in our region. However, it’s still pricey, and takes machines to haul in and place- adding up to similar costs as the plastic liner. Clay is our preferred option, and in late 2018, I got an offer for three truckloads of free dolomite clay. It was being taken off site in Seattle that day, and had no scheduled place to go, so I could have it for free- in return for taking such a large amount of biomass on short notice. It was so tempting, and would have been enough clay for the pond. But there was also a red flag- the clay was coming from Seattle. I asked where in Seattle, and the reply shocked me- Fauntleroy Ferry Landing in West Seattle.
Why? Well, The Puget Sound is amassed with pollutants; toxic industry litters the coast throughout the sound, and West Seattle was no clean oasis in the sea of filth. On top of that, it’s clay dug out of salt water- to line a fresh water pond? No, it would have killed the pond, and the ground around it, and maybe even my well, if the salts were to soak into the ground and into the water table. What a potential nightmare! Of course I said “no”, and the clay went who know where after that, (scary). This is how our good intentions with regards to inputs can cause great harm. Please, if you take away one thing from this writing- know your inputs, what they are, where they come from, and the questions to ask before saying “yes”. Otherwhise, you might end up with some very unwelcome companions.