Michael Martin Meléndrez

Twenty miles south of downtown Albuquerque, in the valley near Los Lunas, sits a garden that’s an inspiration to those of us who love plants, trees, clean air and the comfort of green. It’s called the Arboretum Tomé, a botanical garden of trees, rich healthy soil, more oak species than you can shake a stick at (over 40), a grove of Giant Timber Bamboo, Walnuts from Japan, Eucalyptus and Redwoods from all over the world. Developing the arboretum has been a passion of mine for almost a quarter of a century, and it now represents the largest species collection of trees found anywhere in New Mexico and possibly all of the Southwest and Rocky Mountain Region.
My quest to develop this amazing collection of trees didn’t start off so easy because the soil on the site presented a serious challenge. So serious in fact that many of my professional associates who are Ph.D. soil scientists and horticulturists suggested that I sell the site and find a place that could actually grow trees. I was dealing with a triple whammy of problems including but not limited to the fact the soil was a saline, sodic and alkaline clay, the kind that turns white in winter (called white death by farmers), and is toxic to most plants. The pH ranged from 8.3 to 9.2, and for those of us who understand pH and soil, that’s horrible. Or as my Dad would say, “Michael what you have here is a situation.”
I’ve never been accused of being a genus, but I have been accused of being very stubborn and persistent, and for this reason the soil on the arboretum site is now rich with life and humus-rich topsoil that can support this amazing collection of exotic trees along with the largest collection of NM Native Hardwoods found anywhere on Earth. This is the Arboretum Tomé, my personal Garden of Eden. The secret to fixing the soil on this toxic site is the reason for my company name, Soil Secrets LLC, where we manufacture the highest rated materials used by organic farmers across the nation for fixing soils.
I didn’t haul away all the nasty toxic soil, as some suggested was necessary, and I didn’t haul in tons of compost either. Instead I used the same technique I use to grow all our plants at my Trees That Please Nursery in Los Lunas, one of the oldest nurseries in the state. Over the past few decades I’ve grown hundreds of thousands of trees, shrubs, ornamentals and vegetables, and it has always been my core belief that the best way to grow a landscape of plants or a farm is to observe the natural process of nature and copy that. The science of soil and the way plants take in water and nutrients is all contingent upon a healthy “soil food web,” a cycle of life and nutrients taking place in the soil and that results in a gradual development of topsoil, what I call Pedogenesis, the Creation of Soil. The very essence of rich dark topsoil is the presence and concentration of a biologic material we commonly call humus. In science the word for humus is humic substance, and within this substance is an essential product of soil chemistry called humic acid. The word substance is from the Latin substantia, which is the real physical matter of which a person or thing consists. For example, humic acid is the substance of humus.
For purposes of distinction, we must understand that a soil can contain soil organic matter and it can also contain humus. What we must understand in order to know how to make dirt into a healthy soil is that humus and organic matter are not the same thing, and it is humic acids that are essential for a healthy and productive soil. It is also the humic acids that give us a long lasting benefit, because unlike organic matter, which decomposes rapidly turning back into CO2, humic acids have a resonance time in the soil that can last for thousands of years. Nothing else in nature can bio-remediate a soil as fast or as well as humic acids, and it’s the black carbon-rich molecules of humic acids that, when concentrated, give a topsoil its appearance along with its chemical, physical and biological characteristics.
In a Journal of Chemical Education (December 2001) article titled Humic Acids: Marvelous Products of Soil Chemistry, it is stated that “Humic acids are remarkable brown to black products of soil chemistry that are essential for healthy and productive soils. They are functionalized molecules that can act as photosensitizers, retain water, bind to clays, act as plant growth stimulants, and scavenge toxic pollutants. No synthetic material can match humic acid’s physical and chemical versatility.”
Soil organic matter, which can come from the decay of old roots, green manure, mulches or compost, is beneficial for contributing a fertilizer value of needed nutrients, but it is not a significant source of the humic acids, and therefore is the wrong material for trying to build a topsoil or for trying to remediate a saline, sodic, alkaline clay such as what I was facing 24 years ago. I fixed the soils of the Arboretum Tomé by applying a material rich in the humic acids once per year as an easy top dress, much like spreading a fertilizer. While I continue this annual ritual, the total amount I’ve applied is small in comparison to how much humic acid can now be found and measured by soil analysis on the site. In other words there has been a huge net gain in humic acids that have accumulated by way of nature, exceeding what I have applied by over 100,000 pounds per acre, and found in the top 3 inches of soil.
Today the Arboretum exemplifies the potential for saving farm soils worldwide by giving us a tool to instigate and substantiate the Pedogenesis of soil, which is also sequestering the carbon rich greenhouses gases of the atmosphere, converting the atmospheric carbon into biological carbon of the soil called humic acids. With this we are able to finally fix 7,000 years of conquest where we have destroyed the soils of many civilizations. Only healthy soil can grow a healthy plant, and only a healthy plant can produce nutritious tasty food. Without humic acids in great concentration in your soil, you don’t have a healthy soil! For over 80 years farmers have been depending on fertilizer inputs that are dominated by N-P-K nutrients, which will certainly grow a greater yield. The problem is that these fertilizers contribute to a host of many problems, resulting in the cascading failure of the “soil food web” and the loss of topsoil. It can be said that no N-P-K fertilizer has ever made a soil healthier, and in fact can do the opposite. If this statement is true, and I believe it is, then while the fertilizer can grow more yield, it cannot grow a more tasty or nutritious plant because those factors are contingent upon the soil being healthier.
At the Arboretum Tomé we are talking that talk and we are walking that walk. The Arboretum is opened each spring to the public for our annual Spring Fling, a free day of informative lectures, live music and a tour of the trees. You can get directions by emailing me at soilsecrets@aol.com or by calling my Trees That Please Nursery at 505.866.5027. The day is May the 15th from 9 am to 4:30 pm. I invite you to our garden.