Got Dirt? The Art of Building Soil

By | July 13, 2009
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Maggie Pipkins

Ask ten gardeners how to improve the soil and you’ll get nine different recommendations. (The tenth guy won’t tell.) On Cape Cod, where the glaciers have left us with sand and some clay, enriching the soil is essential. Here, half a dozen friendly folks share their strategies for creating primo dirt.

“‘Cape Cod Worms, can I help you?’ was one of the first sentences I spoke,” says Rottisha Mewborn, who now manages the worm farm her great-grandmother Maggie Pipkins founded in 1974. An entrepreneur before her time, Pipkins viewed the opportunity as the ideal venture for a stay-at-home mom. Now in its 35th year, the worm farm is still located on the family property in Buzzards Bay.

“It’s not like buying a jar of jam,” says Mewborn of her product. “Worms will actually work for you.”

Worms enhance gardens by cultivating and aerating the soil, helping plants develop stronger roots and breaking down organic matter to make nutrients available. Mewborn adds, “Worms dig where our hands can’t go.” She and her family harvest the same red wrigglers Maggie Pipkins grew, but use the Internet now for sales, reaching customers all over the United States and as far away as Africa.

“You’ve got to treat worms right. I’m all about teaching people how to do it correctly,” says Mewborn. “We’ve done the research.” Every year from the age of five through eighth grade she did her science fair project on the red wriggler. “I’ve done it all: worm efficiency, optimum length, their infrastructure and the best environment for growth.”

“It’s fascinating,” says Mewborn, “with worms you get better soil, a good foundation for plants and they help your health. Children don’t grow as well eating produce grown in pesticide-laden soil.” Figure on adding one pound of worms to your composting bin per person in your family. “Start with enough worms and they’ll convert your scraps to compost quickly,” Mewborn advises. “It’s kind of like using a battery that’s fully charged.”

Cape Cod Worms distinguishes their product by selecting only the most mature worms. “We take the time to hand pick through the worms. We don’t sell dirt and we don’t sell babies. The adults eat more and move faster.” says Mewborn. “They’re ready to do the work.”

Irene Caldwell, a volunteer at the Soule Homestead Education Center in Middleborough, Massachusetts, loves worms too. She’s been hooked on them for decades citing, Worms Eat My Garbage, written by Mary Appelhof in 1982, as the definitive bible for vermicomposting. Appelhof travelled around the globe teaching that an effective, simple and inexpensive route to better soil productivity is via worms. Caldwell keeps a large plastic storage tub of worms in her own home year-round, layering the worms between shreds of newspaper and kitchen produce scraps. She finds the method odor-free and that any occasional summer fruit flies are easily removed by inserting a paper cone into a glass jar. “They fly in and can’t get out. They’re kind of dumb.”

Fellow worm evangelist Peter Groves is the outer Cape’s source, selling red worms weekly at the Orleans Farmers Market. Groves, also known as Woo, offers both the worms and a pre-drilled plastic bin system for housing. Like many worm suppliers, Woo also offers two soil fertilizers: black gold, which is worm castings (poop), and worm tea.

No, the tea isn’t worm pee, rather it’s made by steeping the castings. Woo says, “I like to give it a good 24 hours.”

Rit Wallace of Wellfleet knows the value of worms, but his approach is to fold so much organic matter into his garden plot that his soil attracts them. A consummate composter, Wallace invites friends to add clippings to his growing pile. “I just dig from the bottom,” says Wallace. “Occasionally I have a fisherman drop by to pick through for some worms.”

Wallace retired to the Cape some 25 years ago and was ready to plant. “I think he was born to garden,” says his wife Louise. He began in a big way with vegetables. He trucked out sand two to three feet deep in a 40- by 60-foot plot, replacing it with loam.

He ran a water line, installed eight-foot deer fences and built a shed and a traditional three-bin wood composter. His woodland back yard was transformed. Just six years shy of his 100th birthday, he says, “I used to start everything from seed, but now I buy a few and let Agway help out a little. I just don’t have so much idle time.”

Wallace stopped tending an adjacent herb garden a few years ago when the pines grew too tall and shaded it over. Clumps of lavender and parsley are still visible though, and he offered a taste of lovage. Mmm. Like celery. “Real nice in a soup or salad,” he said “and I’ve got other stragglers still growing—sage for stuffing and chives for eggs.”

Every September or October, Wallace plants a cover crop for overwintering. “People use other things,” says Wallace, “but for me it’s always winter rye.” Come spring he turns it back over into the soil where it returns nutrients to the earth. “Oh, and I throw in a bit of lime. Some green sand too, which has minerals from the bottom of the ocean,” says Wallace. Finally, after layering on generous portions of his own three-year-old compost, he revs up his eight-horse power tiller and lets the dirt fly.

What does Wallace do with all the produce his patch produces? “I just love to see it grow,” he says, “and then I eat it. I’m the chief cook too, and then there’s the canning.” He still concocts his own mint jelly and offered up his ballpark recipe. “I guess I just never wanted a lawn,” says Wallace. “They’re nothing but work and no reward.”

Like Wallace, Eastham farmer Bob Wells amends his soil heavily with mulch and compost, but his unique twist is to add some biochar. Biochar is a solid charcoal made from plant material that is pyrolized, or burned in a nearly oxygen-free process until it’s reduced to pieces of what is nearly pure carbon. Wells crushes the biochar chunks, “usually by running them over with my tractor,” he says, and then stirs it into his compost before side-dressing his plants.

“We’re testing the optimum concentrations now,” says Wells. Last summer Wells’ biochar-enhanced turnips arrived at market weeks before the other farmers’ crop and his third-year blueberry plants are astounding for both their size and fruit set. “Not only was volume increased, but even for the blueberries, which have few root hairs, I was able to water less with the biochar.”

Peter Hirst, blacksmith and recent founder of Keziah’s Forge in Harwich, enters the equation joining Wells at Redberry Farm as codesigner and builder of simple metal burner units for biochar production. Farmers, gardeners, individuals, small businesses and communities could pyrolyze the invasive plant species that sprawl over the Cape and use the resulting material to enrich their soil.

According to Hirst, biochar was used thousands of years ago by native peoples in the Amazon. While biochar is presently employed in Australia, Brazil and Japan, it’s not widely used in the United States. Wells adds, “we want to teach everyone about it.”

Wells and Hirst are doing just that. First, they shared their biochar application experiments with an enthusiastic Green Club at Nauset High School. Now the two lead seminars across New England demonstrating biochar production and leading attendees in constructing their own pyrolizers from locally-available materials. Soon Wells and Hirst envision offering biochar at local fairs and farmers markets. Wells says, “We need people to plant with it and let us know what it can do. We need data.”

Without question, the most amazing quality of biochar is that making it and using it as a soil amendment actually sequesters or stores carbon in the ground instead of adding to atmospheric greenhouse gases. Although some smoke is produced, the net result of the pyrolysis process is carbon negative. All over the planet, massive quantities of biomass, including detrimental species and agricultural waste, could be pyrolized to produce biochar.

When it comes to building strong soil, it’s almost as if Rottisha Mewborn of Cape Cod Worms speaks for all of these practitioners  when she says, “Let me help you integrate this seamlessly into your life. We’ll be healthier as a people. We’ll be helping the entire world.”

For more information on:

Biochar, Organic Farming

Bob Wells: Redberry Farm, Eastham 508-255-3688 /

Biochar, Woodland Management

Peter Hirst: Keziah’s Forge, Harwich 650-804-0498 /

Soule Homestead Education Center 508-947-6744 /

Worm Vermicomposting

Rottisha Mewborn: Cape Cod Worm Farm, Buzzards Bay,
508.759.5664 /

Mary Appelhof: Worms Eat My Garbage, published 1982, revised 1997 Peter Groves: 508.241.1014 /

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