There is something mystical about gardening, an activity whose highest expression depends on turning death into life.
If you really want to be good to your plants, if you want them to grow in a maximally fertile soil environment, with maximum pest and disease resistance, maximum ability to survive drought and temperature extremes, and maximum capacity for producing luscious and nutritious fruit or vegetables, you need to provide them with humus, a sweet smelling substance that consists primarily of micro-organism remains, chiefly skeletons of beneficial bacteria that live in the soil and cause decomposition of plant and animal matter.
Did you ever wonder how plants in their natural environment, without the benefit of fertilization, stay lush and green? The answer to that question is humus.
No, this is not the Middle Eastern spread or dip made from chickpeas/garbanzo beans which is known as hummus. It is noteworthy and somewhat ironic, however, that health aficionados advise daily consumption of hummus, just as those concerned with plant health recommend constant availability of humus in the soil.
It is claimed that a daily helping of hummus has many benefits, including weight loss since it satiates and helps overcome cravings, reduces likelihood of cancer since it prevents toxin buildup in the digestive tract, lowers cholesterol, is an anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic food, strengthens bones, lowers risk of heart disease, increases energy, and helps prevent Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.
Chickpeas are a legume and, like its pea and bean relatives, may be grown in anyone’s vegetable garden. It’s one of the slower growing crops and does require 100 days to reach maturity. An Internet search reveals a number of vendors from whom you can order chickpea seeds.
As much as hummus is something of a wonder food for the health obsessed, so too is humus an essential soil ingredient for people who are passionate about their plants. Humus comes from the Latin word for earth, and is the essential ingredient of a fertile soil. Humus is mysterious since no one knows precisely what it is although a working definition would be “the final end product of plant, animal, and micro-organism decompostion.” Like snowflakes, no two humus particles look alike. The reason gardeners go to so much trouble making compost is that it ultimately turns into humus, sometimes called “black gold” by those who work the earth, although it can be dark brown, too, but is always moist, sweet-smelling, and with a spongy or pudding-like consistency. Humus consists of long-chain molecules that stabilize sandy soil and can hold up to 90% of their weight in water, which is a good argument for humus enriched soil in areas like ours where drought is all to common.
How stable are humus particles themselves? They do not break down with time and may persist in the soil for thousands of years. They bind minerals essential to plant growth and prevent them from leaching through the soil during rain and then release them to be taken up by roots. By the same token, humus ties up heavy metals permanently so that these toxic elements are kept out of the ecosystem.
Bringing humus into your garden does not require laboring over a compost pile. All you need to do is mulch, mulch, mulch. Mulch is any material spread on the soil surface that retains soil moisture, prevents weeds, and enriches soil with humus as it decomposes. The etymology of the word “mulch” makes it sound more like decomposing organic matter or humus than mulch. The earliest use of the word mulch is found in Old English, proto-German, and Icelandic languages and dates to the 1600’s, when it had connotations of “soft, moist, mellow, mild, sweet, overripe, and honeyed.” Sweet, overripe, and honeyed could refer to the smell of rotting organic matter of any kind or to the more pleasing fragrance of humus itself. Thus, to those who first used the word, decomposition — recognized by a softening and sweetening of whatever was layered on the soil — was the defining quality and major asset of mulch. This would make sense since England, Germany, and Iceland are places where annual precipiation is high so that mulch’s quality of soil moisture conservation would be an afterthought.
And here’s where humus comes in. As mulch breaks down, a thin layer of humus will form. Even falling leaves, as they decompose, will eventually produce humus. It is for this reason that leaf blowers should never be allowed in the garden. They are fine for cleaning up grass clippings or other debris from driveways or sidewalks or street gutters, but you have no chance of bringing humus to your plants if blowers, which blow away everything, including humus, from the soil surface, are allowed into the garden itself.
I was inspired to write about humus and mulch after receiving the following email from Angela Gribble, who gardens in North Tustin in Orange County. “We have a large yard,” she wrote, “where we took out the grass and put in mulch. After the recent winds, we would like to put down more mulch. Should we wait until it rains or put down the mulch now before the rain comes?”
In addition to its classic uses, mulch prevents rain induced soil erosion on the one hand and soil compaction on the other, which are good arguments for mulching before it rains. Wind, however, can blow away mulch, depending on the mulching material. Shredded bark is desirable in this respect as the strands of bark tend to interweave and bind together.
As a general rule, especially in a dry climate like ours when you never know if the rains will finally come, it is advisable to wet your soil down before you apply mulch. Mulch should be three inches thick but if you put it down on dry soil then, even if it rains, the rain might not penetrate the mulch. Make sure to keep mulch from touching any plant and maintain at least a foot between mulch and tree trunks.
Tip of the Week: Plants with orange or red flowers are an antidote to the bleak backdrop of winter. No seasonal bloomers outdo the many species of Aloe, with their glowing floral candles, in this respect. Aloe ferox, known as bitter aloe, probably yields the most spectacular orange flowers, up to four feet in length, of any plant. It may be the most visible flowering perennial of the winter season and, as a bonus, is one of the easiest to grow. Its species name means “fierce,” a testament to its spiny foliage, yet its long and fuzzy inflorescences are eminently approachable.
It’s called bitter aloe on account of the taste of its juice or sap, whose healing powers are legendary among the South African tribes in whose ambience it grows. Bitter aloe juice is a remedy for a variety of ills, including every type of skin rash and stomach ailment, and it has been used in the treatment of diabetes as well.
The word “aloe” is derived from the Hebrew “ohelim,” or tents, and refers to aloe seeds, which are triangular or tent-shaped.