A friend of ours was wearing a t-shirt recently with a slogan on it that made us chuckle. In large, bold letters it read: “Soil is sick and tired of being treated like dirt”. We had to laugh, and his t-shirt was right. We really do treat our soil like dirt. And, we really need to start reshaping how we view and treat our soil.
We ask so much of our soil.
Soil captures, retains and then filters water. Not often thought about, but equally as important, are the benefits that soil provides to the invisible. Soil sequesters carbon, methane and other greenhouse gases. Soil also provides homes for trillions of microorganisms that convert waste into nutrition for our plants, which then provides nutrition for both us and the animals that feed us.
So, now that we know what we ask of our soil, shall we ask what our soil asks of us?
A short list of things we do to soil that we know is degenerating our soil:
- Rototilling year after year - to “fix” compaction
- Spraying chemicals season after season - to "eliminate" weeds
- Feeding synthetic nutrients - for “healthy” plants
- Compacting the soil with heavy equipment - in an effort to facilitate all the above
The crazy part, if we polled people on what they think soil is supposed to look like, we would bet that we would see many of the same answers: dark, moist, loose, etc. etc. But if we look in many home gardens, market gardens and farm fields, we see soil that looks grey, dry and lifeless.
We know that when we picture soil, we think of the forest floor. Rich in plant and animal life in varying levels of living and decay. The rich, moist and thick smell of soil is what is most familiar to us. Healthy soil has a soul.
Dirt on the other hand just makes us sneeze. The tiny lifeless particles float away in the air as soon as the wind picks up. We curse its existence when it muddies up our freshly washed car. That dirt was once part of a living ecosystem so large that we can’t even fathom. And, we degraded it. We took away its ability to feed and provide nutrients.
When it comes to our gardens, the question then becomes, how can we create the healthiest soil for our plants? We now know that healthy soil grows healthy food, but figuring out how to get healthy soil isn’t always clear. Conventional farming and gardening practices would have you spray synthetic nutrients to make your plants produce. Much like an athlete that takes steroids, the synthetics that we feed only prop up our plants for so long.
The best way to get the healthy edge for our plants is to get back to basics and pay attention to how Mother Nature treats Her soil. Pay attention to Her and mimic Her. It might take a bit longer, but it is always the better way.
Healthy soil is a web of bacteria, fungi, algae, protozoa, nematodes and other microorganisms, all feeding off of each other and the organic material that surrounds them. Each of the organisms has an important role in soil and plant health.
The Top 3 ways to create and support healthy soil are as follows:
- Disturb the soil ecosystem as little as possible: Conventional tilling practices break apart the aggregates that make up healthy soil. When we till our gardens we decrease the amount of holes and gaps in the soil that allow air and water to penetrate into the soil and for the microorganisms to travel through.
- Add organic matter: Organic matter is the basis of a healthy soil system. It is what feeds the soil ecology. When digested organic matter is excreted from the organisms, plant food is made. Adding organic matter can be done in a number of ways at a number of times throughout the year. Applying rich organic compost in the fall is a great way to feed the soil ecology for the winter months.
- Cover your soil: Bare soil is always at risk for problems. Direct sunlight on bare soil will cause evaporation of soil moisture. Direct rainfall on bare soil is equally as bad as it can lead to erosion issues. Soil is best covered with an organic mulch that will allow the soil ecosystem to breath and retain water. The best soil mulch will also help to curb weed growth and will also breakdown quickly to provide nutrition to the soil ecosystem.
So, lets stop treating our soil like dirt! Lets all do the small things we can to give soil its soul back. If you live in Alberta, let Doug Gardens help you take care of your soil and join Doug's Bi-Annual Soil Health Subscription. We will provide you everything you need to support your soil ecosystems on an on-going basis.