It occurs to me that my previous post might leave you with a not quite accurate picture of this part of town, because, as it happens, dredge piles don’t stay dredge piles, at least they don’t around here.
I’m not sure how long ago this part of the valley was churned up in a quest for gold, but it had to be between the late 1800s and the 1940s. At any rate, decades, not centuries.
But when I moved here, I was amazed at how much soil there was. It also flummoxed me that the gravel was so neatly dispersed in it. There is no question but that it is rocky soil, but where in the world did the soil amongst the rocks come from? What I’d learned in school about soil didn’t fit with what I was seeing. I wasn’t seeing layers of soil, built up as vegetation on the surface decayed. I wasn’t really seeing layers of soil, period. But there was a lot of soil, reaching down.
I finally figured it out (I think), thanks to stumbling across info on people who called themselves soil farmers, who built up their soil by (amongst other things) having cattle graze there. The cattle cropped the grass, the cropped grass couldn’t support quite as big a big root system, some of the root system died to put things into balance, the dead roots added to the soil and in their wake left little channels for water and air. Or something like that.
I watched out back, where I leave the yard semi-wild, and noticed that, left to itself, the back yard has one wave of short lived annual after another. In short, plants grow and die, and their roots decay in place, putting organic matter down as far as they reached. Such a deal.
In previous years, I helped things out by watering out there, and by adding a few annuals of my own. (Semi-wild I can handle, weed-infested I’d like to avoid.) This made for some relatively lush growth, and allowed plants to grow throughout the summer. When things got out of hand, I’d pull out the mower, and get satisfaction from thinking that not only was I making the yard look better, but I was cropping the plants, which would crop the roots, which meant I was soil farming.
OK, I am easily amused, and easily find satisfaction in my work. What can I say? I find joy in small things. I liked the idea of soil farming. I still do. And I like that I don’t have to buy amendments or put down layers of compost to do it. Not that amendments and compost can’t be good for soil, but this seemed to be helping without all that.
This year, the landlord asked us to cut the water bill, if we could. So the back yard lay somewhat fallow for much of the summer. But the native plants still popped up in spring, and whenever there was rain. And then most of them died. And therefore, there is just that much more organic matter, that much more soil in progress.
There are other factors, of course. There is active insect life, and worms, and they burrow, and leave manure behind them (as do the deer, birds, cats, etc.) I suspect that some of the gravel is decomposing, too.
But what fascinates me are the roots. I don’t remember learning about roots as soil builders when I was in school. And yet, in this semi-arid climate, which produces relatively little organic matter above ground (and much of that gets whipped away by wind), roots are getting the job done.
There were gravel piles. Now there is land.