Every good organic gardener I know is some kind of worm shit witch doctor. They weren’t born that way, but years of going steady with food-producing plants will do that to a person. We’ve all run through a forest or field at some point as children, picking random berries, bark, and pebbles to stir together in a pot in an effort to create mud magic. As an adult gardener, this activity not only gets more intense but now the search for ingredients to throw into the cauldron becomes more intellectual and well-financed.
Witch doctor gardeners love to collect materials for their potions and elixirs. Bags of ground shells and powdered feathers rest on shelves below oils from sacred trees, various ancient rock dusts and the remains of long-composted sea creatures. These become fuel for future plants as well as the imagination. An informed garden witch doctor not only can acquire dried bat droppings with less than a day’s notice, they’ll ask you what grade you are looking for. And what species of bat you’d prefer shat it.
For the witch doctor gardener a steady source of clean manure is kept secret, lest someone else take advantage of their shit. And wow, do the witch doctor gardeners love their magical manure! “How did you get such massive heads of broccoli and cauliflower this year?” a neighbor might ask. “Well, I mixed horse poo with cow poo last spring, then gathered some buckets of pigeon poo from the 4500 South overpass and let it age like a fine wine. Once it matured, I mixed it with rabbit poo, llama poo, goat poo, alpaca droppings, and a wee bit o’ sheep. I added that to the beds. You know, standard poo procedure,” the witch doctor gardener replies.
The biodynamic witch doctors are even more absorbed and absurd. Fresh cow manure is packed into hollow horns and buried in grand spirals underground. Sometimes this is mixed with ground plants and buried in the brain cavities of skulls, then oriented into specific relationships to the constellations. Mixtures of various powders and poos are stirred for literally hours at a time, first clockwise, then counter-clockwise, to allow for the full celestial power of the cosmos overhead to penetrate and imbue greater quotas of soil magic into the solution.
How did we arrive at this point of personal poo apothecary? Perhaps for no better reason than because it works. The honest truth is that healthy soil ecosystems tend to take care of themselves with little fuss, and in fact, leaving them alone is often what results in the greatest yields. Go take a long and intentional look at your garden beds as they emerge from winter. If you haven’t trampled or tilled, notice how lofted and light the surface of the soil is. Worms have been busy over winter, burrowing thru the soil in search of fungi and other food sources. They leave behind a slime trail, which happens to be absolutely delectable to certain classes of bacteria. As the bacteria consume this slime trail, they glue themselves to their food source, and preserve that worm tunnel in the process. Similar processes are also at work, and the end result is well-mixed and aerated soil without a drop of human effort.
In our bioregion, late fall thru early spring actually sees one of the highest rates of microbial activity in the soil all year. There is serious work underfoot to decay and process all of last season’s organic matter into the next year’s nutrient reserves. Once you’ve cultivated healthy soil biology, you’ll never till, dig, or even broad fork your garden beds again. In fact, maybe they’re this healthy because you stopped disturbing them.
Of course, that leaves us with one small problem: The gardener’s hands are idle. Spring, in our culture, has always been the time to work the soil, and now that your microscopic mates are doing the work for you, what is left to do? (A gardener with spring fever is a dangerous force, often armed with too much motivation and free time.) Sure, there are a handful of cool weather crops that can be sown outdoors, and plenty to start indoors, but neither of those activities can stem the impulse to really work the soil.
This is where our Witch Doctor Weekends come into play. Late winter / early spring is the perfect time to preload your soil with organic amendments.
Organic gardeners have a clear advantage over conventional growers in maintaining soil health and producing enduring fertility. However, the materials we use to feed the soil generally have a slow mode of action. We rely on the action of the soil microbes to transform and store this nutrition in their bodies, and this takes time. Whether you utilize a pre mixed organic fertilizer, mix your own, or rely on composts to restore fertility, getting them applied now will assure you have a full complement of nutrients available later at planting time.
Witch doctor basics
Using a leaf rake, gently remove the season’s accumulation of old leaves and other debris. Once the soil is exposed, note how aerated and lofted the soil is. If it isn’t, you need to pamper your soil more this season, and add a lot more organic matter. If it is, high five yourself, nice work. Now that the surface of the bed is exposed, you’re ready to get witchin’.
illoominated microbe meal (per 100 sq/ft)
Granulated humates 1.5 lb.
Azomite 1 lb.
Alfalfa meal 1 lb.
Kelp meal 1 lb.
Sifted compost to cover
All of these materials are readily available and produced in Utah. The humates feed the microbes directly, especially beneficial fungi. Azomite is processed into micronutrient reserves, and the alfalfa meal is processed into macro and micronutrient reserves. These reserves are held within the bodies of ever multiplying soil organisms, and will not wash away with spring rains. The kelp meal further reinforces micronutrient reserves, as well as providing a store of plant growth stimulants.
In your favorite cauldron, blend the four powders together and thoroughly mix. Feel free to add flair at your discretion, including cackles, chanting, dancing or all three. Note there are four ingredients, and there are four cardinal directions. Feel free to add this theme to your ritual. You get the idea, have fun with this.
Once satisfactorily mixed, spread the now magical powder evenly across the surface of the soil and, using a metal tined rake, gently mix into the top one inch of soil. Be mindful to have a stirring circular motion, rather than a linear raking action. You are trying to mix, not rake. Next, cover the surface of the soil with a half- to one-inch layer of freshly sifted compost, and gently rake this in as well. Finally, water this all in with dechlorinated water (either rainwater or tap water that has been left to sit overnight to evaporate out the chlorine).
The microbes are now fed, and within weeks the soil will be ready to pamper seeds and transplants alike. The surface of your beds are now dark with fresh compost, and this will accelerate the warming of the soil. Clean your cauldron, put your feet up, and enjoy the season like a Boss.
James Loomis is the Green Team farm manager for Wasatch Community Gardens.