WHAT IS SOIL ANYWAY?

Friday 22nd April // Reflections by Hannah Baxter

Today I went along to ‘What is soil?’ because I wasn’t really that sure about it and wanted to find out! The workshop was led by Malcolm Coull, from the James Hutton Institute, and Abi Mordin, from Propagate. There were also quite a few worms involved who led by action rather than with words.

Malcolm gave a talk about soil which, he said, is made from inorganic material, organic materials, water, air and beasties. It is formed by the climate (the wind blowing materials about and the cold pushing rocks apart) and organisms, and it takes a very, very long time to make. Soil is best known for growing things in – and many people in the room were experienced gardeners – but it is also good at storing water, storing carbon, locking up chemicals, supporting buildings and preserving the past. It is also a home for millions of organisms – apparently there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. But there are big problems facing soil – competing demands from various people, pollution from industry, floods washing it away, overgrazing and weathering.

Abi then talked about compost. This led to a little debate about what should go into compost. Is it okay to put in cooked food? Abi thought not, and most agreed, as it can attract rats and mice but an allotment holder present puts it into his compost – controversial! Should orange and lemon peel go in? It can but it takes a long time to break down. And what about human poo? Abi makes humanure! But she wouldn’t use cat or dog poo. Essentially Abi explained that composting is helping to speed up a natural process of organic matter breaking down and for this to happen the organisms doing the work need to be kept happy with food, shelter, heat and water. Compost is not the same as soil; but it is added to soil to improve it.

There was then a practical part of the workshop and we were asked to think about whether soil can be made. If soil is depleted this might actually have to happen as soil would not naturally form as fast as existing soil is being exhausted. Malcolm asked if people would be comfortable with growing plants in this type of soil and mostly everyone seemed cool with that. We then had a go at making soil. I say we but actually I didn’t as my hands are very dry and sore from being in allotment soil a lot this week! This soil was a mix of ground down bricks and ash to make up the non-organic part and Abi’s compost to make the organic part, along with helpful worms and other tiny organisms too small for us to see.

The workshop gave me a lot of questions to think about. Are we being good enough to our soil? What will happen if it is depleted? Will we have to ‘make’ soil and how could this happen on a large enough scale? Abi also asked where does the top soil imported for community gardens and allotments come from – is it okay to move soil around like this? But with these questions, I did get the very helpful answer from Malcolm and Abi to ‘What is soil anyway?’

Yoghurt Recipe

Recipe shared at our fermentation workshop.  It works best with whole non-homogenised organic milk, like the lovely stuff now being supplied by Locavore from Mossgiel Farm in Ayrshire. The yoghurt can be strained overnight to make cream cheese / labneh, just add a bit of salt, and try mixing the cream cheese with chopped wild garlic. Delicious!

Yoghurt

Natural Yoghurt recipe

From: The Lost Art of Real Cooking by Ken Albala and Rosanna Nafziger

1 litre of organic whole milk

1 tablespoon natural live organic yoghurt at room temperature

  1. Over a low flame, slowly heat the milk in a non-reactive pot to 180˚F. The milk should reach a hearty scald – hot and foamy but not quite simmering. If you are going to make yoghurt a lot it’s worth buying a cheese thermometer, you can also use a jam thermometer if you have one.
  2. Stir it occasionally as it heats, remembering that the faster you heat the milk, the more grainy bits of overheated congealed protein you’ll find in your yoghurt. When it’s done, pour into large glass jar to cool.
  3. Let it sit until cooled to 110˚F, or cool a bit quicker by placing pan in a cold water. At this point take a spoonful of milk from the jar and mix with a spoonful of live-culture yoghurt, then stir this back in. A tiny amount of yoghurt can culture a large amount of milk, so you really don’t need much, but it’s important that it’s evenly distributed.
  4. Put lid on the jar and place in a cool box wrapped in a tea towel. Fill four other jars with very hot water and put them next to the yoghurt. This creates your incubation chamber. Close the cool box (better described as the warm box) and leave for 12-24 hours. Some people culture their yoghurt in a wide mouthed thermos flask which has the same function of keeping a steady temperature but it is then a bit difficult to transfer yoghurt to the fridge so I prefer to do it in jars.
  5. Don’t disturb the yoghurt too much while it’s culturing. Avoid the temptation of jiggling the pot to see how thick it is! After 12 hours check to see if it’s set and refrigerate. If it’s still not set, refill the jars of hot water and leave for up to another 12 hours.
  6. If you like thick greek yoghurt, then you can strain the yoghurt for an hour or two in a muslin cloth. Remember to save a little yoghurt for making the next batch.