Soils/Fertilizer

THE WORM TURNS

May 13, 2012: On this Mother’s Day, I would like to reflect on worms. Is there anything more wholesome and American than earthworms? Mom, apple pie and earthworms! They (the worms ,that is) help churn our gardens up, create soil structure and tilth, deposit organic matter. They are the symbol of Mother Nature and her quiet powerful ways of restoring the earth and natural balance . . . or are they?

I was recently reading an article on an online seminar website for arborists (for short, concise and informative articles on trees and the business of caring for them, I highly recommend http://on-line-seminars.com ) about earthworms. Though the article did say that earthworms had many benefits for the garden and agricultural land, they weren’t so great for trees and were particularly damaging for forestland. “Heresy!” I cried. Surely this is foreign plot to destroy our faith in these annelid angels, our soil borne buddies. Upon further research, I did indeed discover that foreigners are involved. They are our earthworms! Apart from places in the Southeast and Southwest US, all the earthworms in the northern half of the US and all of Canada are foreign, introduced from Europe or Asia over the hundreds of years of colonization, settlement, agriculture and anglers. All the earthworms that were native to most of North America were exterminated by the glaciers of the Ice Age. Ah man! Another cherished notion shattered by biological truth.

In our vegetable gardens and in agricultural lands, these foreigners are still beneficial, for the reasons I stated before. They have a remarkable capacity to take raw organic matter and convert it to readily useable nutrients in a fairly short period of time. They build soil structure where soil structure is needed – disturbed ecosystems which , no matter how beautiful or serene, your garden is. Those characteristics, however, are not ideal for forestland and by extension the trees in our gardens or streets which are still essentially forest trees placed into non-forest areas.

Here’s the rub. While in your vegetable garden, worms can create better infiltration for the soil, but in the forest it does the opposite. In the forest, it is the forest duff layer, the accumulation of leaves, branches, Forest with duffForest with duffdead chipmunks, etc., that creates a layer that builds the soil and increases infiltration and decreases erosion. It’s a slow process that takes years through the actions primarily of fungi. Worms however can take an entire season of leaves and decompose them in 1 year. Rather than a slow transition, it’s a rapid one and it results in no duff layer. The duff layer is critical to many species of flora and fauna. For many forest wildflowers, such as trillium, trout lilles and mayflowers, it’s the difference that allows them to survive or not. Forest ecosystemsForest withut duffForest withut duff are changed by the presence of earthworms. As duff disappears from the forest floor, then the seeds from larger seeded trees such as oaks are no longer able to hide from predators and disappear. The microfauna such as insects, spiders, amphibians that depend of the cover of the duff are now imperiled also.

For urban/suburban trees in the landscape, research is starting to suggest that earthworms will not cause a visible decline or death, but they do cause water stress in trees – just another stress in the already stressful life of an urban/suburban tree.

The good news is that worms don’t travel much on their own. They can spread about ½ mile/100 years. Less than a snails pace. But as with many exotics, its less about how they will naturally spread than how we will help them spread. Between compassionate anglers dumping their unused nightcrawlers by the side of their favorite forest stream to vermicomposters dumping worm compost on their newly planted trees the foreign invader is aided and abetted by us. As Pogo would say, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
At least one state, Minnesota, has recognized the foreign peril and has a state statue making it illegal to dump worms in the wild. They even have their own worm homeland defense webpage, http://www.nrri.umn.edu/worms/. What can you do to stem the tide of these slimy invaders?

- Dispose of worm bait in the trash not the woods.

- If you must use vermicompost on trees, freeze it solid first.

If I have been unduly harsh on earthworms, it’s because I’m feeling a little betrayed, like when I found out last year that Santa Claus was really my parents. Worms are good in the vegetable garden or flower beds or the crop field – disturbed environments (or at least until new research proves otherwise), but they’re not around trees. I think what disturbs me also is that the natural world is not very simple. When you think you’ve got a handle on it, you probably haven’t. No saints or sinners in the natural world, just things doing their thing.

There’s still Mom and apple pie left. . . . but is apple pie a native or an exotic? . . . I don’t want to go there today.

BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILZERS – PART DEUX

October 30, 2011: In Part One, we looked at the violent history of organic fertilizers and how they gave rise to wars, imperialistic expansion and the grossest forms of labor exploitation. Of course there were many good things organic fertilizers did, but I’m not getting into that. This is only about the dark side. But the dark side of organic fertilizers pale in comparison with the dark side of inorganic fertilizers, like Darth Vader, Jr to Darth Vader, Sr.

INORGANIC FERTILIZERS are created by a variety of chemical processes. The most important of which is the Haber-Bosch process, named for Fritz Haber, the German scientist who invented it and Carl Bosch, the German engineer who produced it. Both won Nobel Prizes for their work in 1918.

In simple terms, the Haber process captures nitrogen from the air and converts it to chemical ammonia liquid that in turn can be converted to several different forms of nitrogen used in fertilizer. This discovery in 1908 has been called the greatest gift to humankind in modern times. It enabled huge quantities of ammonia to be produced for fertilizers. “Bread from the air” the process was called. It’s estimated that 2 out of 5 people on the planet today would not be alive, if not for the Haber process.

Frtiz HaberFrtiz HaberFritz Haber was a complex, interesting and tragic figure. He was a German Jew, who later converted to Christianity. He was an ardent patriot. When WWI started, he poured his energies into the war effort and what he came up with was - gas warfare. Fritz Haber developed the first poison gas to be used on the battlefield and supervised its first use. His wife, also a chemist, was so appalled at his chemical warfare work that she killed herself with Fritz’s military pistol. Haber was never remorseful and felt that poison gas would bring an end to the war quickly and therefore save lives. We’d see that logic again when the first A-bomb was dropped.

For all of Haber’s service to Germany, in the post-WWI Germany his place became increasingly tenuous. He was eventually hounded out of Germany by the Nazis in 1933 for being a Jew and died a year later in England. Ironically and tragically, the Nazis took his work and developed Zyklon-B, the gas used in the infamous gas chambers of the concentration camps.

Carl Bosch, the engineer who worked with Haber, didn’t fare much better. After the Haber-Bosch process was developed, he poured his energies into building factories to produce nitrogen fertilizer and later synthetic fuel. He helped found the German chemical giant IG Farben that was a critical part in Hitler’s war effort and the sole producer of Zyklon-B, the concentration camp gas.

Bosch, however was a critic of Hitler and, as Hitler rose to power, Bosch was steadily stripped of his responsibilities and power in the German chemical industry. He fell into alcoholism, became reclusive and eventually died in 1940.

The Haber-Bosch process gave us nitrogen from the air. It removed the limits to 19th century agriculture and revolutionized its productivity. But, as in any revolution, there are side effects and aftershocks. Nitrogen from the air has also brought us megatons of explosives, pollution from excess fertilizer use and perhaps a world population that has exceeded its carrying capacity and cannot exist without it any longer.
Haber-Bosch – a process that has had a greater impact on humankind than perhaps any other in contemporary human history was discovered and built by two men that hardly anyone knows of. There’s irony along with blood on the bag.

Next time you open that bag of organic or inorganic fertilizer remember its cost. But be not like Lady Macbeth and wring your hands crying out “Yet here’s a spot! Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” Your garden needs it. Just be wise in its usage.

BLOOD ON THE BAG: A SHORT AND VIOLENT HISTORY OF FERTILIZER – PART I

September 29, 2011:This is not a treatise on organic vs inorganic fertilizers. It is instead a short synopsis of the violent past of commercial fertilizers. I bet you never considered or even knew, when you opened that bag of 10-10-10 or guano fertilizer, that it had a dark past.

What is the difference between organic and inorganic fertilizers? Organic fertilizers are derived from once living matter, ie: compost, animal and bird manure. Sometimes non-organic rock sources of nutrients, such as rock phosphate which is mined, is included under organic. Inorganic fertilizers are derived through chemical processes, most notably the Haber process. (We’ll get into the guy for whom that was named in part deux).

Now there are advantages and disadvantages in the use of both groups of fertilizers, but I’m not going to get into that. When it comes to plant nutrient needs, the nutrient in the greatest demand is nitrogen. Nitrogen is responsible for green growth and many other things. When we fertilize in the vegetable garden or on the farm, it’s usually to supply nitrogen. As far as the plant is concerned, it doesn’t matter or distinguish between nitrogen from organic sources or nitrogen from a chemical plant. An ion is an ion. The differences between them as far as how they interact with the soil and soil biota are there however. . . but I’m not getting into that either. Both have blood on their bags.

ORGANIC FERTILIZERS, until the early part of the 20th century, were the only form of fertilizers available. For local small scale agriculture there was and is local waste resources available, but it has always been limited and expensive to move around. For the world’s population to grow it needed larger, cheaper and more reliable forms of organic fertilizers and that came from essentially two sources – the nitrate mines of northern Chile and seabird guano (droppings) from numerous rock nesting islands off Peru, Mexico and the West Indies. Harvesting these sources caused wars, imperialistic expansion, legalized slavery – in short, a lot of shit, including the word “shit”.

Etymological legend has it that “shit” came from the lucrative guano trade. Guano had to be shipped dry for weight and safety purposes. If the guano was shipped in the lower holds of their transports where leaky hulls might bring them in contact with water, they would generate ammonia, which is highly explosive. An errant ship’s lantern could blow the whole ship to smithereens. To avoid this, guano was labeled “S.H.I.T” for Ship High In Transit. (That’s the legend, however, I gather it’s not the truth. Origins of the word go much farther back than the 1800’s, but that makes for a shittier anecdote.)

What is fascinating is that bird droppings were the beginning of the United States overseas expansion. In 1856 Congress enacted the Guano Islands Act, a law which is still in effect today. What it says is that any American citizen can lay claim to any island in the world if:
1) It’s uninhabited at the time of discovery
2) Has guano deposits
3) Is not in the jurisdiction of another country.
And once you have claim of the island, the United States is obligated to protect that island by force, if necessary. Over 100 islands were claimed by the US through the Guano Act in the Pacific and Caribbean, including Midway Island, the site of the famous WWII naval battle. Until the Guano Act, America’s expansion was limited to the Pacific Coast. One might say that guano built our country into the world power it is today . . . or one might not say that, either

These guano islands however were no dream retreat. They were mining operations and some of them were labor hellholes of the most horrific kind. The most notable was Navassa Island in the Caribbean. The island was mined by African American laborers after the Civil War. They were indentured for a period of 1 ½ years but it was more like being slaves. They were beaten, tortured and killed by the scores. As was the pattern in mining communities in the US, at the end of their work period they owed more to company store than they had made and they had to stay on. In 1889, they had had enough and a bloody worker revolt took place where 15 people, mostly white supervisors and family were killed and dismembered. The US Navy eventually came in and removed everyone, except a small boy hiding in the bushes, and took them back to the US where the rebels were tried and one was hung.

The great deposits of guano are gone along with the vast fortunes made by the guano trade. Many of the guano islands are now wildlife refuges, a good thing. You can still buy guano fertilizer. Some of it is seabird guano, but an increasing amount is bat guano.It's not cheap about $3.50 - $4.50 a pound.

I must say, in all fairness, that the blood of exploitation is not solely due to the need for fertilizers, but is shared by the need for bullets. Potassium nitrate and sodium nitrate that is found in guano and the Chilean nitrate mines is used in the manufacture of gunpowder and explosives. We have used it to produce both food and feuds.

In part deux, we’ll look at inorganic fertilizers. The discovery of how to get nitrogen from the air is hailed by many as the most influential discovery of modern times. It has been both the boon and the bane of humankind and the scientist who discovered it (probably the most unknown “famous” person in history) had a life worthy of a Shakespearian tragedy or Wagnerian opera. Stay tuned, the bag gets bloodier.

F & P