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Garbage in, Garden Out, The Recycling Gardener, Fires, Volcanoes and other Catastrophes

Updated on January 16, 2015

Egypt in 2003, Pyramids, the Egyptian Museum, Tahrir Square, Cairo

That's me. I played while San Diego burned.
That's me. I played while San Diego burned.
Yep, that's me...
Yep, that's me...

I was in Egypt when the big fire hit

I was in Egypt in 2003 and locals were informing me of large fires in San Diego. I claimed this happens nearly every year, usually up in the mountains, no big deal, right?.

When I flew into New York I called home. My wife informed me she had to leave the house (we live in the city), and that she had taken the elderly neighbors to safety also.

I was in complete shock. What was normally thousands of acres turned into hundreds of square miles of fire.

When I returned to San Diego State University where I was on Adjunct Faculty with the College of Sciences the Visualization Lab had put together a map showing how fast the fires had grown and how far that traveled.

It was indeed shocking. Hundreds of square miles burned.

My friend Loren Nancarrow, an author of several gardening books including Dead Snails Leave No Trails was a news anchor at the time with KGTV Channel 10. He commented on air about the damage to the plants and the damage to the soils. I emailed him to spray milk, especially sour milk onto his soil to help reestablish the soils fungi and bacteria in his yard. Well, he put that out on air and then gave my name as the author.

I used to own a radio station, but have never sought fame, so that made me laugh and shake my head. But it does work. I joked with him that neighborhood cats would roam around looking for the source of the milk.

Types of fires in Southern California

Type of Fire
Size of Fire
Forrest Fires
Grass Fires
Really Large
Wild Fires

What to do after a fire

Eric: Professor, you tell me nature responds and corrects catastrophic things that happen, but in San Diego, unfortunately, we have fires. They come in several sizes: large, extra large, massive, and catastrophic. We measure them by how many square miles they consume not how many acres they consume. We just had one and I went out to see that it looked like. Gads, it was devastating, this was a big one, you must have heard about it. This one they think was started by human traffickers using the fire to distract the police and fire resources from their smuggling people into the US. I know this will recover over several years, but what is the process, and is there a way to help it recover faster?

RN: Thanks Eric for the note. What happens in a fire is the rapid oxidation, or burning of various fuels, especially wood and other plant parts. This deprives the soil of future use of those carbon compounds that literally went up in smoke, but is also burned the soil killing bacterial, fungi, and plants of all sizes.

What remains? Lots of carbon is left which water can use to create carboxylic acid to help deliver nutrients to the future plants, and the carbon itself for photosynthesis. Ash is mostly potassium carbonate. In fact, this is where the mineral gets its name, from potash.

Charcoal, which, when buried helps hold nutrients and water for plants, and, a very receptive soil which will accept seeds from the areas or plants that did not burn, Calcium, Potassium, Sulfur, magnesium, the very visible carbon and other mineral oxides also are all left on the surface and below the ground.

The first thing that will happen is various animals bring both seeds and processed nutrients into the area and at the next rain, these start to grow along with seeds left over after the fire or those that blow in after the fire.

Browsing animals, such as deer, can browse and also have a wide open view to see if predators are coming, but they also don’t have as many places to hide if a predator does find them. All in all, the deer and other browsers multiply rapidly. This is good because so do the grasses. They process the grass into both liquid and pelletized fertilizers.

The rain carries carbon and minerals into the soil for current and future use. Some washes into streams, and, if not excessively, actually helps clarify the water. Even if excessively run off, emergent plants benefit by the carboxylic acids that break down and these plants grow faster. Yes, it is ugly, but all a part of rebuilding that which was destroyed.

Eric, you have seen this before because you visited Yellowstone after their big fire, but in Yosemite you said you saw the tree we spoke about before, very large very old trees that have burn marks on the bottom. What is that from?

Well it seems the natives understood that deer liked grasslands and that arrows didn't fly through the bush very well, so they started grass fires to burn off the bushes so the grasses would come back not having to compete with the bushes for sunlight and water.

What was not understood until recently was that this also stopped many insect invasions which we now suffer from and which kill large portions of our forests and one of the reasons they were healthy and strong when the white guys got there.

So, fire isn't always bad, or all bad (don't start fires!). It is always destructive, but destruction is not always bad when controlled. In your case, you can add things back to the soil, especially in more complex carbon forms, such as food waste, and so forth. Till in the carbon from the fire, it is also useful, but sugars and other carbohydrates are needed by the fungi. If you know anyone out in those areas tell them also to seed wild flowers, till the ground, till in waste and almost anything that they can. Milk is quite good sprayed on the surface because it will grow bacteria and start to rebuild the ground beneath.

In general, put garbage in to get a garden out (GIGO).

The Hawaiian Islands are volcanoes. That are the processes that make the soils?

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Yep, that's me.SBX-1 at Pearl Harbor, why I was there.USS Missouri next to the USS Arizona Memorial from the deck of the SBX-1. Sorry, that's all you get...This is all a volcano, right, so, how does it get to look like this?
Yep, that's me.
Yep, that's me.
SBX-1 at Pearl Harbor, why I was there.
SBX-1 at Pearl Harbor, why I was there.
USS Missouri next to the USS Arizona Memorial from the deck of the SBX-1. Sorry, that's all you get...
USS Missouri next to the USS Arizona Memorial from the deck of the SBX-1. Sorry, that's all you get...
This is all a volcano, right, so, how does it get to look like this?
This is all a volcano, right, so, how does it get to look like this?

Turning Lava into Soil

Kalani: Professor, Pele’ is kicking up again, what happens after the volcano spills into my yard? That’s not too likely but actually wondering if I should buy land on a big lava flow. Can you tell me how to break down the lava to make things grow?

Professor: Aloha Kalani, it’s been a while. I have thought about building a recycling plant on an old flow on the Big Island to reclaim a few thousand acres. The idea was to have the trucks break up the lava as they drive over it, then dump the green materials, and cow manure to help break it down because when plants compost they release lots of organic acids that break down the lava. Remember when we visited Mauna Kea and I showed you how the cracks and crevasses trap some dust but also plant material, then that breaks down the lava? Magnify that a million times and you will speed up the recovery of that rock and make soil.

Let’s take a quick look at both Mt. St. Helens and also Hawaii type lava producing volcanoes to show you the difference.

Mount Saint Helens created a large scar on the landscape a few decades ago, so large an event that most people who were alive then remember it well and the thousands of images of the event. I flew over it years later and, frankly this catastrophic event that literally blew off the top of the mountain looked like the surface of the moon.

But this was a relatively small volcano, even for that area.

The government and scientists did a great thing. They divided the landscape into two areas. First, because they had lumber obligations, they allowed some of the large tracts to be replanted to make the trees we need for our homes, and other uses. Other areas they left alone and allowed nature to take its course. They created a giant lab to study the results.

This was really great thinking.

Now, I am not at all against mankind or his efforts so don’t take this wrongly, but when humans are in the forested areas with equipment you are not going to find many animals. The Elk returned to the other areas to survey the landscape and brought with them pelletized and fertilized seed packets that they spread around.

Birds did the same, rabbits, frogs, everything that could migrate away from the blast site did so before the blast and then returned after the blast. Of course, those that could not are still buried under the soil.

Would you care to know which side recovered faster?

Well, you might think nature won, or man won, but we all actually won by this gigantic laboratory they established and described in some detail even before the volcano went off.

Nature won the overall short term battle by informing us just how fast it can respond to a catastrophe, how fast peat can form, how fast waterways can recover, how fast rock can form and how fast water can erode that newly formed rock, in weeks. The diversity of life forms that came in and took advantage of this wide open area was very much as expected with grasses and lupine, sweet peas and other “first responders” if you will came in to prepare the soil, and then larger and larger plants were established. What was most interesting was the rapidity of this happening when let alone in areas dead plants were present.

I flew over the mountain a week ago and there are still some very baron pieces of landscape up on the sides of the volcano where the soils is baron and no plants are there to provide a basis for new growth.

Of course, there were those areas shown on the PBS special where up to 600 feet of rock had been formed in a matter of weeks and the canyon cut by the dam breaking which created that gray Grand Canyon type of canyon through that new rock. (The mass of rock in the Grand Canyon is also grey but iron containing layers at the top leach iron oxides over this grey rock streaking it red.) (So much for the Grand Canyon forming slowly.)

Not much grew there, but, what an interesting event to see how fast sedimentary rock forms. Here, water helped form the rock, then broke the natural debris dam, then cut the rock, in a matter of hours, and then catastrophically flooded downstream. This turns out to be a major player in the way things around us look, like the Missoula flood which transformed Oregon and Washington some time ago, or the big one that formed the huge Santa Cruz valley in Argentina.

In the lumbered segments at Mount Saint Helens, of course, large trees were established, but they did learn quickly that they needed some ground preparation in places where the soil was mostly silicate sand, and in places like this with almost nothing in the soil, trees are still growing slowly. Once the planting was completed in any given area, animals invaded and started to help the dirt turn back into soil and off they went, nature takes over and the soils slowly rebuild. Yes, man's interference worked well alongside of natural processes.

What happened to all those trees?

Some were harvested, some, like those in Spirit Lake, sank to the bottom and were covered by mud. I hope the geologists who tell us that prettification can happen in one to two decades are right and we get to see some of these before I die. That would be really cool! Since one guy in Australia showed how we can grow opals quickly, and there is a lot of silica in that volcano, perhaps we could get petrified wood with colored opal! But I digress into a rock hunter’s daydream.

Other trees were buried in different depths of dirt from the mountain blowing itself up. Those close enough to the surface rotten and improved the soils. Some are deeper and may turn into a coal bed. So lots of things happening up there even today long after the event. All of the natural area has not recovered. All of the lumber area has, with some exceptions and understanding that some areas have several hundred feet of rock or soil with almost no carbon in them and therefore very poor soil.

So the answer is complex. Yes, nature recovers fast where plant materials are, but not all of it recovers quickly. Where there are living things or formerly living things like blown over trees, nature recovers quickly. Where man manages, the forest can recover very quickly.

OK, but you asked about Hawaii. The easy answer is, if you have plenty of water and/or rain, and you will make mulch on the surface, then I would say this could work. Your lava is different from the soils of Mount St. Helens where they simply needed to add things to the dirt on the surface, you need to break down lava, but anything that can break it down like a vehicle helps, and mulching the surface is even better.

Kilauea has been erupting for quite some time. Right now rock is being formed there by a completely different process where the rock comes out of the ground as liquid hot rock and then cools into solid, cool rock. Kilauea has added some 600 acres of land to the Big Island over the past few decades. I was driving along the road in that direction and found the spot where some of that rock was formed over the road. So how did we get the forests? How do we get from there to looking more like the Hilo area with tropical rainforests?

You find a hint if you drive across Saddleback road on the Big Island. Actually, it is called Ala Mauna Saddle Road. Literally, “Trail to the Mountains.” If traveling from the lea ward side, the Kona side of the island you start out in the dry side of the island only to find it very dry at the top where areas seem to lack even small grasses. They are there, you just need to look for them because it is so dry. Lots of lava, not much else. As you travel farther, you end up in a semi arid area which suddenly has a lot of tropical plants you didn't see much of because they are not all that attractive, and, there is more soils for things to grow on. Then, as you approach Hilo, the rain forest simply strikes you and the true beauty of what we mainlanders think of as Hawaii simply surrounding you. Why so much soils on one side and so much rock on the other when all of this started out as lava?

Just add water. The availability of water is the key factor that causes a cascade of events that breaks down the lava.

Water is slightly acidic as it comes down and then slowly starts to slowly dissolve the lava. Dust from the volcano activities as well as from outside the area accumulates slowly in cracks and crevices. Then spore from ferns, mosses, and the like start to grow. They can start anywhere there are two together and a drop of water. Roots start to dig into the rock roots produce small amounts of acids, more dust blows by and accumulates, as parts of those plants die and decay, humates form and the acids break down the lava even more, so more roots, plants, more rain continue this cycle until you end up with a beautiful forest. The western side of the islands are not so lucky to have the rains, and so the rock persists much longer.

So water can be helpful, as here, or cause problems, like in Washington. You need water, decaying plants help, so, if you are going to buy a piece of lava, make sure you have access to water one way or the other.

Ferns in Lava

Sorry for the low res on this, but it is my photos from 1998, more than a century ago in digital terms. The ferns are growing in the flows of Mono Loa. The leaves die, break down into acids, and break down the lava into soil.
Sorry for the low res on this, but it is my photos from 1998, more than a century ago in digital terms. The ferns are growing in the flows of Mono Loa. The leaves die, break down into acids, and break down the lava into soil.

© 2015 Ronald A Newcomb


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