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Our farmhouse kitchen was always full of honey, eggs, homemade wine and ginger beer from neighbours and aquaintances. They’d drop off the produce from their gardens in return for what they took from our farm. They called it ‘black gold’. We called it manure. A great pile of composted manure from our dairy. It was full of bugs and worms and beetles that had broken it down into neutral-smelling compost.
One neighbor who kept bees would get very excited when he saw all the bugs and beetles and worms. “You can have all the fertiliser in the world,” he said. “But you need all the bugs and worms to help the plants thrive.” I was a kid and didn’t really understand what he was saying, until I started on my vegie garden in the city.
The galvanised iron tanks that were to be my vegie garden arrived and I filled them with soil from the garden centre and added some organic fertiliser. My seedlings, however, failed to thrive. At the same time I was lucky enough to meet US soil expert Gary Zimmer for a newspaper interview. After we finished the interview
I told him about my new vegie patch and he said basically said that something was missing from my soil. Life! “To grow nutrient-rich foods we need nutrient-rich soils,” he said. “You need the right balance of minerals and the right balance of biodiversity.” And by biodiversity he meant not only worms and bugs but bacteria and fungus as well. He explained that soil fungi break down things like manure into compounds the plant roots can feed on.
With his words ringing in my ears I took buckets of compost from the compost heap and forked them through the soil. The compost was like a starter culture – the bugs, fungus and worms reproducing the same way bacteria in yoghurt multiply in warm milk to make more yoghurt. Within a few weeks my garden beds were full of life and the soil was light and friable. Within a month the fruit and vegies were responding; not only growing faster but were also deeper in colour and more intense in flavour.
From those few square metres we have silverbeet, beans, tomatoes, garlic, nectarines, lettuce, broccoli, kale, herbs and rocket. The beds were placed right at the back door by the kitchen. Both my young daughters now know which vegetable is which and how to pick a handful of parsley for the salad. The seeds, scraps and offcuts from the vegetables go straight into the compost by the fence. My youngest takes great delight in pouring the scraps into the bin and watching as I turn the compost over. “There are my worms Daddy,” she says. “We’re feeding them.” She now watches with great interest as those worms and all the other bugs and critters are dug into the vegetable beds, and she enjoys poking bean and cucumber seeds into the rich earth.
We don’t have the farm anymore but I do still have a great sense of pride in taking an armful of my own home grown vegetables down to my aunty in the country – who will gladly swap them for a bag of ‘black gold.’