If you’re interested in soil health, spend 15 minutes with Cat Buxton. She has several professional titles and affiliations, but “soil guru” would cover it.
“In natural systems, no one is going around with a bag of fertilizer,” she says by phone from Strafford, after a full day of leading a pollinator garden overhaul with volunteers at the local school.
In natural ecosystems, the nutrients are cycling around from soil to plants and animals without the help of additional inputs, explains Buxton. With some care and attention, she says the same thing can happen in our own gardens, farms and backyards, and it all starts with the soil.
There are several factors involved in creating good soil, and a lot of research and scientific papers to explain them for people who want to get deep into the weeds. But in short, it all boils down to nutrient cycling: Good soil provides the space for air, water and a diversity of microorganisms, and this is what makes nutrients found in the silt, sand and clay available to plants.
The volume of knowledge and techniques she imparts in a short time over the phone is not unlike drinking from a fire hose, or in this case, a high-powered garden hose. But if you really want to dig deep into the topic, join one of the many workshops led by her offered throughout our state and region.
On a recent summer Saturday, Buxton was joined at Wildwater Farm in Quechee by 15 people interested in learning how to build and monitor healthy soil. Her four-hour workshop, which was part of a series of summer and fall workshops coordinated by the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont (NOFAVT), would take participants through the science and practice of good soil. The group learned about monitoring climate change through soil changes, building soil into a sponge, increasing the organisms in your soil to help nutrient cycling, minimizing disturbance to soil and building healthy soil systems without the help of agricultural companies — and this was all in the first hour.
Walter and Lois Liggett, from Montpelier, were at the workshop. They manage a portion of the Northfield Street Community Garden, and their plot produces 400 to 500 pounds of vegetables each season that they donate to the local food pantry.
The couple is in their fifth year of this work, and this spring, they tried something new: For the first time in their growing history, they overwintered spinach, and were able to deliver 25 pounds of fresh leafy greens to the food pantry.
Learning new techniques is precisely what brought the couple to a workshop on soil health.
“You hear so much about soil health,” says Walter, “and I wanted to learn more about it.”
The couple is hopeful that their newly gained knowledge will help their own garden. One new idea they brought home from the workshop is the use of fungus to repel weeds. The community garden is on the site of an old pasture, and while it provides beautiful, well-drained soil for growing, there are a lot of unwanted grasses, or weeds, invading their garden beds. Walter and Lois are planning to add wood chips to their garden paths to deter the weeds, since the wood chips will increase fungal activity in the soil.
Treating their soil like a sponge is another thing Buxton’s workshop left them thinking about. They are looking into ways to build up the structure of their soil, to create those spaces for air, water and microorganisms to move within the soil so that their plants can access more of the nutrients that are already in the ground.
Soil health is the topic of another recent on-farm workshop, held at Black Dirt Farm in Greensboro Bend last week, as part of a lineup of on-farm workshops and activities hosted by the Kingdom Farm and Food Days and Open Farm Week. About 50 participants learned to make worm castings, and then brewed a tea from the castings. The afternoon was rounded out with farm tours, a taco truck and live music.
While the event gives a place for social connections and learning, the tea, explains farm owner Tom Gilbert, gives a medium for beneficial organisms found in the castings to multiply. The tea helps by extending the benefits of the castings and allowing them to be applied over a larger area.
As farmers, he explains, “we are operating in disturbed ecosystems. Farming is a disturbance.” When crops are grown, and then harvested and sold, nutrients are removed from the soil, “and these need to be replenished with a thoughtful approach to ecology.”
These on-farm workshops are growing more than just healthy soil; they’re contributing to a growing knowledge base and skill set among growers at all scales. Bringing in experts, like Buxton and Gilbert, to lead the workshops is one part of that, but the workshops are also facilitating peer-to-peer connections. Learning on the farm means seeing growing techniques in practice and making connections that build social health, in addition to healthy soil and food.
Lois and Walter remember another NOFAVT farm workshop they attended last year, this time at Harlow Farm in Westminster, where they learned about cover crops. This farm keeps half of its acreage out of production for several years at a time to rebuild the soil with specific plants that add nutrients and structure to the soil, such as rye and legumes. The workshop allowed growers like the Liggetts to see this in practice and learn about it from the farmers.
“Going to these workshops has a social aspect,” says Lois. “We’re learning how other people do it, and that’s important.”
For a full list of upcoming NOFAVT on-farm workshops, including details and up-to-date information, visit their website, https://nofavt.org.
The current schedule includes the following workshops and farm socials:
8/17: Edible Landscapes for the Homesteader/Gardener, Plainfield
8/21: Veggie Wash-Pack Getting You Down? Dial-in Best Practices to Improve your Postharvest Efficiency, Profitability and Food Safety, Starksboro
8/28: Celebrate Your Farmer Social: Rogers Farmstead, Berlin
8/29: Pest & Disease Walk for Commercial Growers, South Royalton
8/30: Medicinal Herb Gardening & Salve-Making, Lincoln
9/5: Pasture Management & Annuals for Summer Grazing, Cornwall
9/17: Exploring Practices & Policies for Improving Soil Health Series (Livestock Focus), Brattleboro
9/26: Exploring Practices & Policies for Improving Soil Health Series (Dairy Focus), Highgate Center
10/1: Exploring Practices & Policies for Improving Soil Health Series (Vegetable/Cut Flower Focus), Middlebury