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Towards Natural Crop Nutrition

By Newman Turner

When I was farming in Ireland I always noticed that the cottager’s goat and donkey had abundant grazing long before there was any hope of pasture, even on the most forward leys, on my farm. The Irishman’s ‘long acre’—the banks and hedgerows of the roadside—upon which the landless maintained considerable numbers of grazing animals—provided lush growth a month or more before cattle could be turned on to even the best managed farm pastures.

This happens everywhere in the world, but it struck me more forcibly in Ireland because the ‘long acre’—as the Irish call the free pasturing of the roadsides—is made much more use of in Ireland; and I became as green as the banks with envy, when my well-treated fields grew hardly a blade of grass, while a cottager with barely a back garden was feeding his goats, donkey, turkeys and maybe even a couple of cows, for nothing.

Why is the hedgerow growth so much earlier and quicker to recover after grazing than the field growth? Can we imitate the conditions of the hedgerow to reproduce the same early and abundant growth in the field?

pulling out silage
Cattle pulling silage out of an almost sheer face.

It is not difficult to discover the reasons for this superiority of nature in the hedgerows and to apply them in establishing our cultivated pastures. The herbal ley comes as near as possible to this ideal pasture, so long as the soil conditions of the hedgerow, as well as the variety and type of ingredients, are imitated for the ley.

What, then, has the hedgerow grazing got that the field has not?

I summarize these desirable factors as follows:

  1. Ideal soil conditions—i.e. fertility, friability, moisture-holding capacity, and warmth from bacterially-generated heat.
  2. Shelter—the hedge acting as a cloche to encourage an early start to all crops growing under or near it.
  3. Deep-rooted ingredients and early-starting herbs.

Each autumn nature begins to prepare the soil for the early spring growth of the following year. Seeds of all varieties fall into an already warm, moist and friable soil. Then starts a succession of leaf-falls of various kinds, which, intermixed with a tiny proportion of animal wastes, covers the seeds. A slow process of decay, through which the fallen leaves then begin to pass, assisted by rain-given moisture held in the surface sponge of organic material, creates all the warmth and nutriment that the seed needs to germinate and grow. The seed which contains the nucleus of life is covered, warmed and fed by leaves which have died and fallen from the trees, bushes and grasses above the soil. During their growing period those leaves have gathered the raw materials of chlorophyll, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, proteins and sugars from soil, sun and air, and in addition, no doubt, many elements of which we know nothing, from sources of which we are even yet not aware. These are transferred by the leaves to the surface soil to join in the work of soil bacteria, mycelia, fungi and the minute living creatures of the soil, to supply, in adequate quantities and ideal proportions, every single requirement of health, nutrition and growth for the young plant as well as for the established bush and tree.

No synthetic nutrient need be added and, because the resultant crop is always naturally healthy, no poison sprays are needed to ‘protect’ the plants from pests and diseases.

In spite of the complete absence of artificial nutrients or stimulants, the roadside grasses, clovers and herbs, quickly recover and produce fresh growth after frequent cuttings by council roadmen in Britain and the grazing of ‘long-acre’ livestock in Ireland. How much more ought we to harvest from our pastures, even without chemical stimulants, were we able to imitate these ideal soil conditions of the hedge bottom. For we have the advantage of generations of selective breeding of leafy strains of grasses and clovers, in addition to the natural herbage of the hedgerow, from which to constitute our leys.

grazing fertility fields
Cattle grazing in one of Newman Turner’s “fertility pastures”.

But the fact is, that on most farms, little or no attempt is made even to observe, let alone profit by nature’s methods of soil preparation and fertility building. When I first observed how nature got at least one month ahead of me in providing ‘early bite’, I too was following the accepted system of soil cultivation, with all its attendant costs in fertilizers and health supplements (which were made necessary by the inadequate diet which resulted). But once having recognized the superior method of soil management and manuring, I quickly started to adapt my ley preparation to it.
I needed no scientific confirmation of a method I had observed with my own eyes to be superior and less costly than any accepted method of achieving ideal soil conditions for early growth. The simple comparison of growth in the field and around the hedgerows, provided convincing evidence from the only really genuine scientist—nature. Facts are good enough for most farmers without the supporting explanations of laboratory-bound professors, though men who have gone to the fields for practical information have since supported nature’s methods of cultivation and manuring as the best means of ensuring constant foolproof fertility, instead of the misleading and variable measure of chemical analysis.

Over twenty years ago, Sir Albert Howard insisted on the importance of the biological, as distinct from the chemical, assessment of soil fertility. He declared that chemical soil analysis was, at very best, nothing more than a rough guide, to be checked against physical examination and a close observation of biological and botanical indications.

When he first visited me at Goosegreen, we discussed this subject at length. He had made suggestions which were contrary to the indications of a recent soil analysis. ‘Forget the soil test,’ he said, ‘look at the weeds that are growing there.’

I had grown up under old-fashioned farming conditions, and a father who was suspicious of the mathematical tyranny of soil-analyses and other scientific arrogance. The true farmer knew his soil by its feel in his hand and under his feet, and by the plants which nourished under natural conditions. We knew that the heaviest crops resulted from the most muck, whatever N, P, or K a soil analysis might suggest. So what Sir Albert said made sense to me.

Newman Turner's herd
The author’s herd. Note the capacious udders and big bellies to utilize high-quality natural food.

When, with the change-over to surface cultivation, I found that keeping organic matter in the top few inches of soil resulted in increased crops and the apparent correction of ‘soil deficiencies,’ I described the phenomenon in my book Fertility Farming. Dr. Dahr, head of the chemistry department of Alahabad University, visited me and said that what I was doing on a farm scale to demonstrate the biological release of plant nutrients, confirmed experiments in which he had shown that the chemical analysis of the soil was profoundly influenced by the method of application of organic matter; that surface application, in the presence of sunlight, added not only the chemical constituents of the organic matter itself, but collected and manufactured, by photosynthesis and bacterial action, additional quantities of essential elements and released further otherwise unavailable minerals in the top soil, during the process of decomposition. Soil analyses were thus useless, as they would vary according to biological activity, which in turn varied with seasonal sunlight, rain, and surface organic deposits of crop residues and insect and bacterial life. Sir Albert’s view of soil analyses was thus justified; my own experiments and claims recounted in Fertility Farming were scientifically confirmed; and our assertions regarding the complete adequacy of organic methods, and in particular organic surface cultivation, were firmly established.

As though to clinch the matter, we were further supported by Struthers and Sieling of Massachusetts University, who declared that organic matter on the surface of the soil has the ability to collect from the atmosphere ‘aerosols’ containing phosphates and calcium, and that adequate surface organic matter was the best means of maintaining and increasing essential available nutrients in the top soil.

Source: Fertility Pastures