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MMWD Blog: Think Blue Marin

Welcome to our blog! Written by staff at MMWD, “Think Blue Marin” explores all things water in south and central Marin—water supplies, conservation, new projects, watershed management, and more.

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Mar 04

Rev Your Engines?

Posted on March 4, 2016 at 8:34 AM by Ann Vallee

by Charlene Burgi

Springtime will officially be here the 20th of this month. Gardeners are already revving their proverbial engines to start digging in the soil, setting seeds and new plants. The warmer sunny days are a magnet to even the most devout indoor house-dweller who can't resist partaking of nature's free vitamin D. The garden beckons.

And in spring, revving engines in the garden can be taken quite literally. Some gardeners still believe rototilling their gardens is mandatory before planting. For years, rototilling was considered the only way to prepare the soil before planting a vegetable garden. Add a few bags of steer manure, which was the fertilizer of choice, and couple that recipe with a few beefsteak tomatoes. Voilà! Instant garden.

In contrast, I specifically recall watching my godfather Pete, who was an amazing gardener, double dig his garden. Pete took days to prepare the soil before even thinking about planting. He came from northern Italy, and things were done differently in the old country. I never understood why he would carefully shovel the soil from one trench into another trench alongside where he'd just dug, when this rototilling machine could rip the soil in short order. As he worked well-rotted chicken manure and compost into the trenches, I remember the soil being a dark rich color and very friable. I also recall the abundance of vegetables that were harvested from the garden that took so long to prepare. From that well-worked garden came healthy, abundant crops grown the old-fashioned way.

While Pete never revealed the reasons he gardened as he did, I wonder if the Italian gardeners knew and respected the earth in a way that remained unbeknownst to the "instant gardener" with the rototiller. It was years later, and after Pete had passed, that the mystery behind his gardening practices came to light.

Healthy veggies
 Healthy veggies mean healthy mycorrhizae
While growing up, I never heard the word mycorrhizae. Was it said differently in Italian, or was it just understood down through generations the importance of minimizing soil disturbance? Mycorrhizae literally means fungi roots. I learned later in life that these fungi are found throughout the soil. Simply stated mycorrhizae work with the plant, establishing a means for the hair-like fungus to feed the roots nutrients and moisture as well as keeping the plant healthy. When the soil is disturbed through rototilling, the network of mycorrhizae is torn apart and must repair itself before plants can benefit from the symbiotic relationship between plants and fungi. Double digging, as Pete employed, caused minimal disturbance to the fungi since it moved very little while the soil turned over. Over the years, the word has spread among gardeners about this valuable relationship between fungi and plants. The spring engines are heard less often these days.

Are you a rototiller kind of gardener? Or is double digging part of your routine schedule in the spring? Think of the final outcome of disrupting the working energy between plant and fungus before revving your engine!


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