We were all sporadically exposed to gardening throughout our lives, whether vegetable patches or grandma’s flowerbed. Even the most uninterested people know that soil anchors plants. They repair themselves, have flowers and fruits and need some water, simple. It’s not until one becomes a serious grower that soil health becomes a major factor. Looking back, I feel frustrated about how ignorant we were, however. Gardeners and growers bombarded insect pests with poisons that not only killed every other beneficial insect but also poisoned the soil, eventually. The same holds true for amendments like synthetic fertilisers. It is not all bleak, however. To our own defence, we weren’t all ignorant at least. Even as little as ten years ago, before social media, Wikipedia and the myriad of amazing sources of information, we did what we could with the knowledge we had.
Here is the good news though, and it is in fact, not that new. We can advance, change, and build our environment as we see fit. If done correctly, by permaculture or other positive methods, soil fertility improves the way nature intended it to be. Pick any of your favourite hikes, whether in the mountains, seaside or desert, and go for a walk. Start paying close attention to the random but extremely well designed patterns that nature uses. Start looking at the lush parts and note the moisture, the covering layer over the soil and the different layers of growth. Hairy-rooted plants take hold of loose soils and pen-roots drive into the harder, compacted areas. Near the ground, you will find soil armour in the form of of living mulches like creepers and low-light tolerant bottom dwellers, and dead, organic materials (rotting leaves, pine needles etc). This really is the first wave of defence and regeneration of soil, locking in moisture and giving living organisms a home. Nitrogen-fixing plants, bushes, trees, poisonous plants and edibles each take up a space in the natural system according to their needs and requirements. It is indiscriminate in order, but structured in purpose. There are bonus points for you if you noticed that nature never digs or turns the soil. You can use this practice, whether you have clay or sand, live in the tropics or desert or already have fertile soil.
Traditional agriculture lies on the other side of the spectrum. For years, decades even, farmers planted mono-crops on fields. Crops that fight each other for the same nutrients and conditions, the worst kind of competition. To make matters worse, pivots irrigate the bare, exposed top-soils, allowing the sun and wind to steal most of the water, killing off beneficial bacteria and fungi. These fields remove carbon from the soil in every step of the way. When harvested and baled, they cart away the last carbon. Before the next season, the tillage starts. Breaking the topsoil layer not unlike destroying an apartment building with the people still inside it. The corridors, rooms and pantries in the building become a salad of destruction. Life ceases to exist, and to repair it, we need a whole new cycle, planning and migration of people. Soil is exactly the same. The mycorrhizal fungi with its hyphae act like the corridors, as bacteria and nutrients move along its paths. The fungi fulfil so many purposes. For instance, it breaks down larger materials in compost and soil. Chemicals, tillage, and abuse also kills off the good stuff. There are chapters to speak about the worms, fungal activity, bacteria and nutrients, but this article is about construction of soil – not destruction.
I am convinced by reading and watching studies, but mostly through awakening common sense, that we can each solve a part of the bigger problem. Healthier soils are exponentially beneficial, affecting more than just food crops and earnings (yield and quality). There are no excuses to avoid starting the healing process of soil right away. At the scale of an apartment resident, the balcony pot plants are target areas and the results are likely seen soon thereafter. The urban gardener, whether for flowers, shrubs or vegetables should not delay either. Small-scale farmers, smallholders and subsistence farmers have no choice but to step in as health, profit and future-proofing their livelihoods are a priority. Large-scale commercial farms should defer at their own peril, as the soil gets worse and worse. Amending synthetics and killing off pests along with their beneficial and predatory counterparts will not only affect the inevitable downturn of yield but also load the groundwater sources with nitrates.
Our journey in buying our own land took us from one landscape to the next. The rocky Karoo, sandy west-coast and clay-loaded area we settled in now. It was daunting and exciting planning the growth of our food and sustaining animals. I watched so many videos, touched on plenty of studies, and each of them led me on a path to the same answer. Sand or clay cover, we would need to fix it, support it, and nurture it to a point where it would look after itself. One solution was to look at some permaculture practices and taking advice I got from others seriously. Moving in at the farm, the olive-tree covered property comprised some different zones. A high side consisting mainly of clay & a low side with healthier and darker yet still mostly clay. The larger, invasive trees dropped branches and leaves and already started repairing the ground. Constructing our cottages led to sterile soil around them as builders mixed cement and dumped buckets of paint on the ground. We had to act at once.
Always cover. This is one of the many important things I have learnt about soil and it is also one of the easiest natural things to spot. Living and dead mulch covers all healthy soils. Bark, leaves, branches and other organic material covers the top few centimetres. In the sunnier areas, living armours are common. For instance, grasses, creepers and the other things we love call ‘weeds.’ This is what we did, more successfully than not. Olive trees were unorganised and needed significant pruning. Instead of a chop-and-drop method, we accumulated a large car-sized pile of clippings, which we duly fed through a wood chipper to create wood-chips. The wood-chips served a singular purpose by being on top of dry, dead areas and inside potted-plants. To this day, it keeps in moisture and has shown a major reduction in seedling and plant losses. The area under which we piled the chips changed from clay to black soil in a matter of months. We watered trees and vegetables in pots almost daily until we mulched. We now do watering every fourth or fifth day, even in summer where our temperatures can reach 35 to 40 degrees celsius. The proof was in the pudding for us.
Woodchips are a finite resource for us anyway, and we had to find a secondary mulch. This is especially true for deep-mulch growing areas. The local agri-shop seemingly always has chaff in stock, bales of the stuff. It is fairly cost effective and later led us to buying a large round-bale of it from a neighbouring farm. Scattering the chaff is easy, and it immediately locks in a lot of moisture under it whilst staying put in the wind too. This allowed us to capture rain and irrigation water for longer. It has been almost 10 months, and some areas are showing improvement already. It buys us the time needed to help the native veld grasses to recover and eventually form its own layer of protection over the ground. You should be careful, however, when buying chaff or hay bales from unknown sources. They could have used pesticides and other chemicals on the producing farm, which can transfer to your plants through the chaff. The side effects can manifest as dead or deformed plants.
I previously said: “always cover,” but now I want to touch on the second part of it. Always grow.Ignoring the sterile looking, bleak crop-fields on traditional farms, you can see this rule out in nature. Nature always covers and always grows. Plants can push through paving, tarmac roads, and walls. Left to its own devices, any piece of soil will develop growth, eventually. At Litengard, we created a rule that prohibits any plant removal, which includes anything that an average visitor might believe to be a weed. By allowing natural growth to prevail between our planned and planted areas, not only covers the soil but it acts as a monitoring system. Some say weeds are just a plant in the wrong place, and I agree. A mass of soil, anywhere, contains tens, hundreds, or thousands of seeds that may lie in dormancy. When conditions are right, those seeds will germinate, and this is what we then see as weeds popping up.
However, permaculture states that the problem must also be the solution. One could use weeds to determine the weaknesses or strengths of a particular area. Making a note of which weeds pop-up and learning about them will tell you everything you need to know about a particular piece of your ground. Some of them even look good! Notably, there are guests that pay almost no attention to the rule and will step, boot, or allow children to frolic through sensitive areas. We should take care to inform guests politely and discourage animals from doing harm.
We have examined two major soil-health topics, covering and growing. A close runner-up is the use of chemicals detrimental to soil and plant health. We are becoming increasingly acquainted with the proper ways of dealing with pests on plants by introducing predatory insects or using natural substances like diatomaceous earth. First, consider the chemicals used. The convenient aerosol spray label says ‘for flying insects’, which is a broad spectrum poison acting on exactly that; flying insects. Applying it to deter flies inside the home will probably impact many of the beneficial insects. While it sounds like a small influence, there are far-reaching consequences too. For example, domestic and wild birds could eat the affected insects, resulting in secondary poisoning. Further exposure to bees, wasps, non-flying insects and arachnids will lead to even more killing of predatory and pollinating insects.
The next dire consequence of chemical usage correlates directly with our topic of soil health. A handful of healthy soil contains millions of life-forms, and these exist only where their food sources are suitable. A shortage of oxygen, for instance, will cause anaerobic bacteria to dominate aerobic bacteria. The same holds true for nutrients in the soil, and inevitably, other synthetic chemicals like the various pesticides used by average John and the large-scale farm. In the simplest terms, if you kill what lives in the soil, you kill the soil. Dead soil supports low or no life.
Nutrients are in the air. It is there, as a fertiliser for you to grab, and it is free. The carbon and nitrogen cycles are significant to soil health. The exchange of nutrients between plants and other organisms, living or dead acts as a labour force at no cost. These cycles are also nature’s primary recycling loop, feeding back as it completes. Agriculture on a large scale in mono-crop environments again not only removes from this process by constant withdrawal but works against itself by not depositing. Using plants that can both provide food or feed and harvest nitrogen before depositing it into the earth is one of the popular ways of soil building. The composition of soil is about way more than just nitrogen and carbon, as many other elements play a role. However, the ‘Carbon-to-Nitrogen’ ratio is one of the starting points. If you take anything from this paragraph, then it should be that you can amend your soil by having the relevant plants in a guild. In that guild, you want the harvesters and cyclers to work, to feed the soil by symbiosis with everything else. Nitrogen fixers are easily researchable and should lead you on a happy-path to choosing the correct ones. Grab the carbon-dioxide (by photosynthesis) and nitrogen from the air and push it into the earth as soil-carbon and nitrogen.
Reducing tillage, ploughing, cultivation, or other forms of harsh soil disruption will again mimic nature. There are major impacts on soil when cultivating, as we previously mentioned. It is worth noting though, that organic matter in the ground increases as plant, animal and other life dies and rots in the soil allowing organisms to consume it. The organisms responsible for this release heat, moisture and carbon dioxide (think composting). Tillage disrupts this process significantly. Adding plant matter back into the soil steadily reverses this effect. It reduces carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere and gives organisms a chance to store it in the ground. Fortunately, farmers increasingly realise this and changing to zero till practices.
Looking at what lives under that layer of earth we see at the top reveals many inhabitants both macro and microscopic. In a single gram of fertile soil, there are up to a billion bacteria of differing types. Good and bad bacteria exist everywhere on your clothes, on your skin and in the soil. The conditions in which they live will determine the balance between good and bad. Nutrients, poisons, predatory life, moisture and the companionship with other life-forms play a role in this. Fungus also exists in many positive and negative forms, but let’s concentrate on one kind.
Mycorrhizal fungi is a serious player in the world of soil-building by invading plant roots symbiotically and also by breaking down matter. Mycelium, the roots of fungus have many sub branches called the hyphae that make up most of fungal growth. It can tolerate acidic conditions that make fungus so efficient in breaking up (composting) larger organic matter, like wood, where the microbes can not. The hyphae act like little channels that move things around. As with the larger life-forms, like beetles and earthworms, microbes can hitch a ride on the hyphae (and worms and beetles).
Nematodes, meanwhile, live in the moisture in soil. They are minute, microscopic worms that exist in hero and evil form, as with bacteria, fungus, arthropods and the rest of the biota. Some of them dine on living roots, while others prefer the rotting matter underground. Earthworms move around the soil while consuming their own bodyweight each day by consuming bacteria in the soil they eat.
You get the picture. We must respect a teaspoon of healthy soil like a metropolis of life. This metropolis functions according to serious schedules, strategies, and plans. Introducing the incorrect chemicals can poison, dehydrate, starve, and acidify this metropolis of life. It affects one area, the next suffers, and the whole symbiotic relationship goes out of the window. The immobilisation and mineralisation processes halt, nutrient and carbon cycles slow down or stop. The plant can no longer fight off attackers, stopping it from feeding underground. With its death, beneficial subterranean life under it diminishes. Bare soil remains, baking in the sun, becoming more sterile. They bring in ploughing and artificial chemical amendments as a means of ‘revival’, only to serve as a temporary boost. Further weakened, profits, yields and nutrient density of crops drop. Things get worse from here, while humankind’s population pushes the 8 billion mark. We cry for even more food and water, space and health.
We will cover water runoff, infiltration, and water storage in another article. These apply to soil health and directly affect it. We can explore much more in this area. Keep an eye out for that.
Healing the soil is possible, and it is easy. By following nature’s recipes on our own properties and allowing nature to do its thing, we can restore the ability to fix a lot of problems. By building up the soils we degraded, problems in food production, water efficiency, fire control, and oxygen production are fixable or at least improvable. Projects (Greening the Desert) by people like Geoff Lawton have shown that it can put green back into the deserts. It starts with your own circle of influences and a mindset, no matter what the scale. It’s applicable to large-scale farms as much as a pot plant. It works naturally, and with knowledge we can make it work for us all. Take the term “soil building” to heart, it can be as much a rewarding pleasure as it should be a responsibility.
The sources of information, trials and findings for this article came from the following sources: