Taking a Look Your Soil’s Fertility

I’m a transplant.I recently moved to Dawson City from Whitehorse, and I recently moved to Whitehorse from my birthplace in Ontario.

In Ontario, I worked full-time as a gardener to the rich and famous for 12 years before hanging up my shovel and coming North. In the Yukon, I have yet to keep a garden of my own, but I plan to sow some seeds this summer and learn about Northern gardening from the green thumbs around town.

My second week in Dawson coincided with International Composting Week, where I met Dawson City Community Garden coordinator and farmer, Katie English, who organized a number of events during the week to share the, ahem, richness of composting.

Fertile soil contains high levels of micronutrients, created by millions of microscopic critters living, reproducing and dying.

My herbalism teacher, Steven Martyn, puts this perspective on the matter:

“Each handful of topsoil has over a trillion living beings in it — that’s more beings than all the humans on Earth.”

Decaying matter is good. And heat is required for adequate decay, but heat isn’t in abundance in the Yukon.

The Yukon Revegetation Manual published by Yukon College explains, “Yukon soils have formed under cold, semi-arid to moist sub-arctic climates on a range of geologic materials. While mineralogically diverse, most Yukon soils are shallow, have cold temperature profiles, exhibit weak to mild chemical weathering and contain very little organic material. Cold temperatures decrease the rate of chemical reactions and microbial metabolism within soils.” Translation: if you garden in the Yukon your soil may contain gold dust but it’s probably lacking in fertile organic matter.

To supplement the soil, you need to compost, as composting is the easiest and cheapest way to introduce organic, decaying matter into the soil. It’s also a beautiful way to reduce waste filling up the landfill.

Try this simple soil test that English taught us:

Take a 1-quart jar and fill it halfway with a handful of the soil. Fill the rest of the jar with water, leaving an about inch of space at the top. Screw the lid on tight and shake the jar. Now let the jar sit undisturbed for 24 hours, no peeking. The settled layers you will see in the jar after 24 hours are, from bottom to top: sand, silt, clay, and water. The organic materials, containing the micronutrients you seek, float on top of the water.

To determine percentages, measure the whole height of the jar contents. Divide the whole jar measurement by 100. Hold onto that magic number. Measure each layer individually. Now, multiply the magic number by each of the layers. The answers are the percentages of sand, silt, clay and organic matter in the soil.

For example, if the measure of the whole jar equals 8 inches, the magic number would be 12.5 (100 ÷ 8 = 12.5). If the clay layer is 2.4 inches, the percentage of clay in the soil is 30% (2.4 x 12.5).

Another helpful tip from English’s composting workshop: boost the nutrients in the soil by adding strong nettle, yarrow, and chamomile teas to your compost. These herbs will speed the decay of the materials you have thrown into the compost.

And by the way, if you drink a weaker version of the same tea yourself, you will clean and support your liver, help prevent seasonal allergies and have a good night’s sleep.

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