Here’s a hint: terra firma
What lies underneath Oklahoma’s flora and fauna is a complex network that we perhaps too simply call soil.
Soil composition is more complicated than you think
Soil composition isn’t simple at all. According to the National Conversation Resource Service, soil is “The unconsolidated mineral or organic material on the immediate surface of the Earth that serves as a natural medium for the growth of land plants.” This is the first part of the definition. The second part is more lengthy and you can read it on their website if you’d like.
Does soil have a social life?
Many soil scientists are starting to think so. I decided to write this post after reading “The Social Life of Forests” in the New York Times. Although the article focuses upon Suzanne Simard and her studies of the soil of the Pacific Northwest, it highlights that trees and other shade plants communicate and cooperate with each other beneath the earth’s surface. That sounds like a social life to me. Many of her studies have been tested and replicated, and it’s an exciting time for soil scientists. Her work has changed the way forests are now managed in certain parts of the U.S. and Canada.
Oklahoma is ecologically diverse
Oklahoma is a very diverse state ecologically, with almost half of our state once covered by the Great American prairie. Prairie soils have their own complex ecosystems, and although much of Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and Nebraska’s topsoil blew away in the mighty storms of the dust bowl, farmers have now learned to conserve prairie soils.
I-35 is Oklahoma’s central north/south corridor
Highway I-35 which runs north and south down the center of the state is a nearly perfect demarcation line of the western prairie and the beginning of the deciduous forest. Soils in the western part of Oklahoma are completely different from the sandier red soil east of I-35 where I live. In fact, our Little Cedar Garden lies in two areas of Logan County referred to as part of the Central Rolling Red Prairies and the Northern Cross Timbers. To find your soil type, check out this 1996 General Soil Map of Oklahoma. If you scroll down from the link you’ll also find vegetation and climatological maps for Oklahoma. You can also search for your county’s soil survey. I looked up mine for Logan County.
Oklahoma isn’t boring
“Oklahoma Rocks What Lies Beneath,” by Dr. G. Randy Keller, does a great job of explaining some of our prairie soil composition and the ecological and geological history of our state. When people tell me Oklahoma is boring, I’m always surprised. Oklahoma is a fabulous, diverse, and very old part of the U.S. Our trees may be short and stubby in parts of the state, but they are also very old. For more about our diverse forests, please see the Oklahoma Forestry Services maps.
From the laboratory to the mainstream
In the last 20 years, the study of mycorrhizas and soil has moved from the classroom and laboratory to mainstream writing in books like The Hidden Half of Nature: The Microbial Roots of Life and Health, by David R. Montgomery and Anne Biklé and The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate? Discoveries from A Secret World, by Peter Wohlleben. There are plenty of other books on these subjects too. Novels about tree communication like The Overstory: a Novel, by Richard Powers won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and I’m reading it now. I find it slow going, but I’ll persevere because the writing is beautiful.
When I took all those botany courses at the University of Oklahoma about a thousand years ago, soil was discussed in the barest terms. Oh, to take botany and soil science classes now! Particulates like clay and sand were outlined with compost as a mere mention. I don’t remember anything about mycorrhizal networks, a subject that now fascinates me.
What does soil mean to you as a gardener?
Oh, so much. As a garden coach, when I visit my clients, they usually want to talk about plants. I carefully listen. Then, I gently bring up soil, compost, and mulch, along with raised beds. If you primarily have Oklahoma red clay soil and you don’t want to wait years to begin gardening, you probably want to build raised beds.
If you work hard to establish good soil in your gardens, you will grow great plants. Even if you forget to water sometimes, you will still be able to grow so many things. Compost and mulch, as they decay and work their way into the soil, help establish mycorrhizal networks, also sometimes called the soil food web.
Dig up any plant in a good garden and you will see a network of fibers that twist and turn in a handful of good soil. These are the mycorrhiza that plants depend upon for so many things, some of which are still a mystery.
So, if you hire me as a garden coach, I’ll be glad to talk about cool plants. I mean, who doesn’t love new plants–but I will also want you to improve your soil.
Build your own compost, but in the meantime…
The best way to improve your Oklahoma soil is through building your own compost, but that takes time. Using bagged compost like Back to Nature and biodegradable mulch is a quick start while you’re tackling compost bins.
Compost is the dirty underbelly of gardening, and we’re glad.
I hear a lot of talk about expanded shale, but I haven’t found that most people need this amendment. I will suggest you also get a soil test from your county before you start improvements. You can’t tell where to go until you know where you are now.
Then, it’s all about maintenance
Once you make those first improvements, plan to keep up with them each year. It’s kind of like visiting your dentist. Plant roots uptake nutrients and water from the soil, and you’ll need to replace what’s taken. I don’t believe in tilling up the soil anymore. In fact, that can hurt the existing soil structure. You can simply layer amendments like shredded leaves and compost, along with mulch, and let earthworms and other creatures work those into your soil over winter. You do need to remove Bermuda grass though. Bermuda grass is the bain of my garden existence.
What about leaf mold?
If you have shredded oak leaves, there’s nothing better than leaf mold to improve soil structure. You can buy a leaf shredder or run over leaves and catch them with your lawnmower. I layer these shredded leaves into piles in my lower pasture and use them all summer and fall. I also work them into new planting holes.
In other news, I’m still keeping busy working in my garden on nice winter days.
I continue to take garden coaching clients which makes me happy. All I’ve ever wanted to do with this blog, my speaking, and other endeavors is to help all of you learn to garden. Gardening isn’t hard. It just takes time to learn the process. Even experienced gardeners are always learning.
In the meantime, here’s a potpourri of gardening tips.
I finished planting bulbs indoors and outside in late November and early December. Then, I covered the bulbs with more leaf mold and soil. I’m also keeping the transplants in the greenhouse alive, no small task.
Carol and I continue to record our podcast weekly. This week’s episode was on Sunflowers and Microgreens.
Our family had a beautiful and quiet Christmas, and we are looking forward to the new year and the new vaccines. I hope all of you are well too.
Happy New Year my friends.