International Year of Soils 2015: Michele Barson leads Canberra's charge

Michele Barson working in her plot.
Michele Barson working in her plot. Photo: Jamila Toderas

This year is the International Year of Soils and on World Soil Day in December the importance of soil for human survival and its sustainable management was discussed at Canberra City Farm in Turner.

Major General Michael Jeffery, as the Prime Minister's Advocate for Soil Health, spoke of his vision for "healthy, well managed soils, which are resilient to stressors such as climate change and able to support and sustain productive ecological and agricultural systems over the long term". He said that the recently established Canberra City Farm bridges the urban-rural divide.

He told those gathered about his visit to a school in Sydney with 307 students were involved in a school garden. They found that even recalcitrant boys, 13-year-old tearaways, after holding a beaker of soil with the light behind it and seeing the bugs in that soil, and eating their first zucchini from that garden, were hooked. Soils boast more organisms in a teaspoon than there are people living on Earth.

Michele Barson's climbing beans with flowers.
Michele Barson's climbing beans with flowers. Photo: Jamila Toderas

Penelope Wensley, patron of Soil Science Australia, said the purpose of IYS 2015 was "to draw the non-specialists into the circle, to convert others to the cause, the convince them that soils and soil health are of such vital importance ... it should be a national priority and a national passion."

Science adviser to the natural resource management programs in the Department of Agriculture in Canberra, Dr Michele Barson, was among those celebrating World Soil Day. She provided morning tea of homemade cakes and slices with a decidedly "soil"-type appearance from walnuts, dates, cocoa and chocolate all homemade without a molecular gastronomy component.  

Over the last few years, the Department of Agriculture, through the National Landcare Programme, has provided more than $750 million for projects to help farmers improve soil and biodiversity management. The department is also working with CSIRO, state agencies, universities, rural research and development corporations and farming groups to implement a national soil research strategy to improve Australia's soil management. Barson came to Canberra from Melbourne 32 years ago to join the department. 

Produce with preserves from Michele Barson's organic garden.
Produce with preserves from Michele Barson's organic garden. Photo: Jamila Toderas

She has had a Canberra Organic Garden Society plot in Cook for the past four years and has focused on building up the beds so they are well drained and on increasing soil organic matter to improve soil structure, water holding capacity and nutrient availability. 

Her friends and "assistant gardeners" at Cook, Mike Vale and Trish Carroll, have helped dig in Temora sheep manure from Belconnen Rotary Trash & Treasure market in Jamison, Dynamic Lifter and alpaca manure from Barson's friend at Molonglo Alpacas in Bungendore.

To reduce water requirements in summer and the need for weeding, they have spread mulches including homemade compost, chopped sugarcane, shredded broad bean plants, pea straw and, occasionally, lucerne. 

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The main priorities were to establish an asparagus bed that could last for 20 years and a large patch of Willamette and heritage raspberries. These crops grow at each end of her plot and in rows between them are cucumbers, artichokes, eggplants, beetroot, basil, climbing and bush beans.

Among a variety of tomatoes are Tommy toe, stupice, rouge de marmande, an unnamed Italian variety and a couple of yellow varieties. The male asparagus produces spears from springtime onwards and the female produces ferny foliage and red berries at this time of year.

At home in Florey, where Barson has lived since 1986, she has lemon and lime trees, quince and fig trees, potatoes, zucchini, rhubarb, perpetual spinach, herbs and strawberries.

She brought a harvest basket to the Cook branch of the Canberra Organic Garden Society with homemade preserves including strawberry and raspberry jams and we walked along the main pathways between members' plots where Barson had mown the grass on the weekend.

This activity is taken in turn by members who also keep an eye out for snakes that visit the fenced enclosure with its locked gate. The appealing site is surrounded by Aranda bushland and has views to the Brindabellas.

Susan Parsons is a Canberra writer.