Cultivating soil health in our agricultural systems is vitally important─not just to our gardens and fields, homesteads and farms─but also to the ecosystems we coexist within. All of the life that exists on this planet is dependent upon our soil’s ability to host biological organisms. We’re incredibly fortunate that the conditions for life happened to align here on Earth, else we would not be here. It’s a marvel. A wonder. Promoting the health of our soils encourages life to flourish─both within the soil, and above it; and when life around us prospers, we will know more bountiful yields, and thus, we will prosper too.
As I prepare to embark upon my first full-season here at Runamuk’s new (and forever) location, I’ve been reading up on soil, trying to gain a better understanding of what a healthy soil looks like, what the components are, and how I can create it. I’ve been gardening for more than 20 years now, yet I admit soil is still something that perplexes me. Maybe because it’s an entire world away, beneath our feet, and so much of what occurs there happens out of sight.
This is the first in a series of articles I’ve put together to help you (and me!) gain a better understanding of soil and how we can be cultivating soil health in our gardens, or on our farms and homesteads. Upcoming articles in this series include (but are not limited to): “4 Strategies for Improving Your Soil”, “Mulch on the Cheap – a Farm-Hack”, a guest-post* (topic TBD), and a review of Andrew Mefferd’s new book: “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution”. The whole series culminates in a giveaway of Mefferd’s book, so check back soon to get your name in for that!
We cannot talk about soil, without first talking about carbon. Carbon is the most essential element in soil fertility, aiding in the development of soil structure, water and nutrient retention, as well as the biological processes that occur within the soil. In sustainable agriculture you hear a lot about increasing the organic matter in the soil, but carbon is the fuel source driving that microbial network.
Modern agriculture is currently experiencing a carbon crisis. 50-70% of the world’s carbon in farmland soils has been off-gassed into the atmosphere through the practice of tillage, and farmers are increasingly struggling with soil fertility issues as a result. Still, so many farmers and gardeners still swear by the age-old practice of tilling the soil for cultivation. So much so, that often it’s not even questioned.
Tilling tears apart the organic fungal network within the soil and adds large amounts of oxygen to the soil, which then causes the organic matter to decompose at an unnaturally rapid rate. The farmer or gardener will see an immediate nutrient gain, but it comes at a significant long-term cost, for now the fungal network must be rebuilt before the microorganisms that feed the plants can return to work.
Soil is Habitat
It’s most important for the gardener or farmer to remember that soil is a habitat. This habitat isn’t just physical support to hold plants in place, it’s a whole world of lifeforms that have evolved together with plants over billions of years─and they are all reliant upon one another for their continued existence.
Above the soil, plants use sunlight to convert carbon and water into the carbohydrates that are the building blocks for their roots, stems, leaves and seeds. Below the soil surface, earthworms create tunnels, which the plants use as channels. These channels allow roots and water to penetrate deeper into the soil profile. Mycorrhizal fungi and a spectrum of microbial lifeforms create beneficial relationships with plants by bringing water and nutrients (especially phosphorous) to plants in exchange for energy in the form of carbon. Again, carbon is the fuel source driving the microbial network to digest minerals and make them available to plant roots.
Thus, the goal of good soil management is to maintain the right balance of minerals, organic matter, air and water to allow life to flourish both above and below the soil surface.
Note: This documentary called “Living Soil” is fairly inspiring, and full of useful information that will help you better understand soil and why it’s so crucially important. When you have a little downtime I highly recommend it.
Cultivating Soil Health
In order to cultivate good, healthy soil, creating those ideal growing conditions for both plants and the soil-life plants depend upon, we need to know which practices to use. To determine that we’ll need to know our soil’s unique characteristics. What color is the soil? What kind of texture and structure does it have? How deep is your top soil? What is the fertility level or the available nutrients? How well does it drain?
Most of these questions you can answer for yourself just by getting up close and personal with your soil, but a good soil test through your local cooperative extension will provide in-depth information about the available nutrients in your soil, as well as those that are lacking. If you haven’t already, I strongly encourage you to get the kit from the Extension office, take a soil sample (usually you’d collect a few samples from various sites on your property or across the garden plot into a bucket, stir thoroughly, then collect the sample from this bucket to send to the University for analysis). Pay the $15 and find out what you’re dealing with.
Working With Nature
When you stop to examine the natural processes at work around us here on Earth, it becomes profoundly apparent how interconnected we all really are. Like plants are dependent upon pollinators for their reproduction─so too, are they dependent upon the life-forms within the soil. Every living thing on this Earth has a part to play, and it all starts with soil. As gardeners, farmers and homesteaders we are actively participating in, and cultivating those processes; it’s important for us to better understand what those processes are so that we can work with them, not against them.
It is this farmers’ belief─that, as a stronger, and more highly evolved species, humanity has a responsibility to look out for the creatures and life-forms around us that don’t have the ability to speak for, or defend themselves. It is my belief that we need to step up and take responsibility for our actions─responsibility for our species─and start farming and living more ecologically.
Yet, even if those things do not matter to you, and you aren’t concerned with soil or environmental health, cultivating soil health is still beneficial for improving the efficiency and profitability of your garden or crop-field. There are farmers and gardeners out there who are using methods that promote life in the soil, and they’re having great success. You could start today; try it for yourself and discover the benefits!
Check back soon for the next article in this series on soil, or to enter to win a copy of “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolution” in our up-coming giveaway! Subscribe by email to have the latest articles and posts from Runamuk delivered directly to your in-box! OR follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram for a glimpse into the day-to-day happenings on this Maine conservation farm!
Soil Health on the Farm – an interactive exploration of soil health and how to improve it. From sare.org.
Managing Soil Health: Concepts & Practices – via PennState University Cooperative Extension.
Soil Health Literature – via the Natural Resources Conservation Service
Soil Health Institute’s Resource Library – from the Soil Health Institute.
Soil Health; What is Healthy Soil – via the Rodale Institute.