ECO-Tours only purchases trees and dirt to plant them in...

Thursday, February 17, 2022

What is the Nature of Soil?

One of the most fundamental ways of looking at soil is to determine what the main ingredients are. Some soil contains rocks and gravels and it has been determined that anything bigger than 2mm is just a contaminant in soil. Rocks, stones and gravel are considered by soil scientists to be too large to be considered. So, first we have to screen soils through a 2mm mesh to see what portion of the ground beneath our feet is really soil and how much is just a contaminant. I have tried growing a garden on gravelly ground and the plant that did best there is purslane. Sadly, at the time, I didn't know it as a nutrient dense food crop, but I did know that it composted easily and turned it into compost for years, until I could build enough soil to grow other plants for food. Like most living things in soil, which I will discuss later, I have the tenacity to not give up, not give in to pressure, but to hold out long enough for conditions to improve. I put forth as the primary nature of soil to contain and express the deepest level of tenacity our human brains can fathom. Let's not get ahead of ourselves... The most important information to get about soil is what on earth is making up the mass? Luckily, the simplest and most profound question can be answered with a simple and profound test. Take a handful or two of soil, put it in a clear container that is taller than it is wide, fill the container with water, put a lid on it and shake. let it sit overnight or up to several days or weeks until the water has cleared and you will see three separate and distinct layers in the vessel. At the bottom will be sand. These are the largest soil particles, so they fall out of suspension first. The middle section will be silt which ranges from as small as two thousandths of a centimteter all the way up to five hundreths of a cm. Finally the topmost layer will be clay, particles smaller than two thousandths of a cm. I recently heard an interesting way to think about these relative sizes. tiny numbers really don't tell the story, especially when you get down to sizes we can't even see. Think of it this way, if the smallest particles were the size of BBs or marbles, the middle sized particles would be the size of basketballs or beach balls and the large particles would be the size of a chair. Typically, these three ingredients make up over 95% of the soil.
Of course with any hard and fast rule, there are major exceptions. Organic material in the soil, which is often seen as bubbles on the surface of the water used in the previous test, can become a large percentage of the soil, but then it is either called peat or muck. Peat being derived from mosses and growing organic sources and muck being from lake sediments, or detritus (like the waste bin of nature)Across most of the developed world, many soils have been tilled so agressively that no organic material is left in them, less than one percent organic material is frequently seen but it is an extremely dangerous condition for soil. At that point it is more accurately called dirt. It will easily erode with either wind or rain, without a thick mulch layer or some growth and living roots to hold the material together and protect it from rain and sun. Each component of soil is good for some things and terrible for others, so having a good mix is best. If you have a single material dominant it raises management issues but any soil can be worked with. My own personal preference is clay, but the management of that type of soil is just as quirky as would be a predominantly silt or sand soil.The difference is that I have learned to respect the limitations of my clay soil. Sand drains like crazy, which is normally very good, but it presents a problem in that it drains so easily that it is hard to keep soil misture even enough to get plants to grow well.sand also very seriously flirts with contaminating surface and ground water because any nutrients applied to the soil can be washed away because the matrial drains so freely. It can also be a challenge because many organisms will find it difficult to stick around when the soil routinely goest through extreme wet and dry cycles. This also can mean huge variations in surface temperature as well, especially if mulch cover in not maintained.
Silt provides much more surface area which can be available for the soil microbiome to flourish upon and although it drains more slowly and provides more opportunity for life to thive than sand can, it can also be threatened by tilling or not enough nutrients. Most people hate clay because mor ethan likely they inherited poorly managed clay, as I did. It had been seriously compacted through consistently poor management and in large areas it was just lifeless. Although clay can provide the most habitat for soil microbes of all the soils, any land manager who has to deal woith them needs to understand their limitations as well. Most often the limiting factors are the ability to get air and water down into the soil. If water can't even penetrate the soil, it can only run off and it will take some clay particles and nutrients with it as well. The best thing in all three cases mentioned above is to add either compost (or other organic material) for organic carbon or mineral carbon with microbes in the form of biochar. I make the distinction betewwn the two because material that was once living releases most of its carbon over the course of about four years, ninety percent leaves the soil. Mineral carbon is not a food source for any soil organism, nor will it break down if eaten and excreted by soil dwelling creatures. It remains unchanged for hundreds of centuries, continuing to provide habitat for soil organisms. This small but vital part of soil, organic and inorganic carbon are what allows soil to be healthy, well-drained and able to withstand drought. The living and dead roots, provide some large structures that increase porosity, but it is the living organisms and th edead organic meterial they eat, as well as what they excrete that make soil vital and healthy. In soil the tiny percentage of living organic material does most of the work feeding the plant roots and providing smaller structures that allow air and wate rto be available enough under the soil surface to create a rich habitable zone within which millions of other life ofrms co-exist. The most true nature of soil is to be the ultimate team player, providing opportunity and the synergy that comes from diversity and abiding by terms of the give back or give away. When soil is treated badly enough, it often just goes away.

Sunday, February 6, 2022

Shameless Plea

We are getting ready to preserve nearly two acres and transform it, like we did our last two properties, into a permacultural wonderland of native, edible and medicinal perennials, pollenator gardens and habitat for a variety of creatures. On our second walk-through at the property, we frightened a muskrat who looked fat and happy but for the fact that he was awakened and had to run a long way for cover. We would definitely improve that critter's habitat! Our earlier goal of saving 80 acres remains our ultimate goal, but this property has an established caretakers home and two greenhouses. We would have to raise four times as much money to build in all those improvements on 80 acres. Not to mention the infrastructure needed to even set up such a facility. As an added bonus, instead of being 3-5 hours from major population centers, there will be a million people within bicycling distance! Talk about offsetting carbon footprints!Even more interestingly, we will be just of fth eIce Age Trail and will be able to offer no trace camping to through hikers!
Trouble is, I'm not going to sugar coat it, money. Due to covid-19, it has been two full years of less than half my normal professional gig that allows me to fund the work that ECO-Tours has done. We are adept at soil restoration and teaching about how to make and use biochar. Spreading seed and re-establishing native cover. There have been many events where contributions have covered gas or lunch, but often not both. We can afford to operate on exremely small budgets, whether we are tree planting, seed collecting and dispersing, teaching classes or doing intrerpretive programs because our labor and management have always been 100% volunteer. It took us our first ten years to do, but we planted 60,000 tree seedlings across Northeast Wisconsin and we raised less than six thousand dollars a year during those years.
We were able to do it because we got creative. One of us would wait around, until after pick-up hours at the annual Department of Natural Resources tree seedling distribution event, many years hundreds of trees came home with us that otherwise would have been thrown into the compost. In fact, the year before the first year we put in our order, I had been walking past the greenhouses at the County Extension Offices. Out back I found over 2,000 tree seedlings in their compost. We took them home. potted them up and it took a while, but we got nearly all of them set out into permanent and appropriate places, their forever homes, within that first spring and fall. After I found that treasure, I went and asked why they had thrown them out and they said that every year, when they did the DNR tree seedling sale, some live plants would not get picked up and they didn't have any way to store them or hold them for later pick up, so they just put them in the compost pile.
I made sure after that to always show up at the beginning of the day to help set up, then to fill my order as late in the day as possible, so I could help after they shut down. After two or three days of getting people paired with their orders for pick up, everyone woul dbe pretty tired and the idea of taking a hundred or a thousand trees home ot plant is too much for anyone to think about, unless you are someone with friends who will help pot them up and eventuqally come help plant them out on another day, which we did. Inevitably there would be at least a few dozen left over seedlings. Most times there were many hundreds and once or twice over a thousand free trees to help keep our costs down. The real value was in all the loving hands that helped pot them all up and those loving hands that came later and lovingly placed them in the ground. Indeed, the loving hands of those who pulled competing weeds were also necessary to have the thousands of sucessful trees, spread across many hundreds of acres that would have never grown without the participation of many hundreds of people who care.
The reason that I mention this is to point out that rather than contributions being eaten up by administrative or fund-raising costs, our dollars flow with power and immediacy to what needs funding, not advertizing and gala events for megadonors. Give what you can. If you would like to stay in the loop about our events, which are mostly centered around Wisconsin let us know at: or if you would lik eot purchase a class, We can teach you everything you need to know to make top quality biochar in just a few hours by phone or online through zoom or fblive. Any contribution of fifty or more gets you a class if you would like to start sequestering carbon forever. If you are having trouble with our paypal link, you can go there directly and use our account number, or, you can go to our gofundme page and contribute to "Save 80 acres of Wisconsin for outdoor school".
These trees were some of the first we planted and this image is from ten years ago. The last time I was past the farm, they were taller than the house! They are also large enough now to shade the west side of the house from summer sun and winter wind. The energy savings alone is like offsetting carbon use that is now unnecessary. In very real ways, we continue to prove that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago, the second best time is today!
Again, please contribute what you can.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Imbolc Blessings

The proverbial back of Winter has been broken this week. The Sun is on the way back to our hemisphere. The "Flaming Arrow" of our shared human spirit is on her way back from the underworld. This spirit, more recently described by the name Brigid, has a corollary in Persephone. Fertility, renewal, inspiration and crafts all flow from the burnig fires she brings forth after she has been impregnated in the dark. Her feminine aspect going, during the dark time, to the deep, mythic subterranian realm. As the days quicken, nights grow shorter and the sun angle continues to rise, higher and higher, the promise of Spring's arrival, no matter what a select rodent might think, will come in about six weeks. In the Celtic Calendar, this was the New Year Celebration a feast day, a night of bonfires, reflections on th epassing of last year's struggles and re-commitment to what is coming so quickly upon us. In preparation for Summer's flush, the season was determined mostly by the birthing of young livestock, the coming in of the milk for the herds. Modern humans may not want ot admit that they feel these stirrings, but we had an unbroken rhythm to our lives back to our earliest ancestors that ran by the intricate workings of th eseasons, not just a mechanical clock and a raster of days. The punctuation of life was that every six weeks or so, throughout the year, some sort of reason to get out, be amonst the neighbors and to celebrate were the touchstones of time.