Learning About Soil

This is something that many of us have heard many times, but for soils to begin to make sense we need to look at them in a different way. I could go on and on about air deposition of toxic compounds, cation exchange, N,P &K, hours of sunlight, moisture content and the like, but the real truth of the matter is that to truly get to know your soil, or the soils around us, the best teacher is interaction. I have planted gardens on everything from forest duff to sand, to hard packed clay and the good news is that there was always a t least one crop that seemed to like whatever difficult conditions that it had to endure to grow. The only gardens that I can truly say failed were either planted and then never tended, leading to a weed patch with a few struggling plants that were intentionally planted there, or the drought year that I opened up a new garden on a cinder heap and had to water it daily. Ironically, both of those are on me, not the soil. Had I known then what I know now, both of those years would have been different. I encourage everyone to read a simple book called Soil Science Simplified as well as one called A Biodynamic Farm. Both of these books are published by Acres U.S.A. and they tell about as much as can be said in two books about the subject.

What is not said overtly in these two books, perhaps, is more important than what they can provide in the way of knowledge. Soil is a culture, a medium through which all good things can find a place. The trouble, most often, is that we have used and abused the soils as if they were banks, able to recreate nutrients from thin air. I’m not going to focus on the big three, like most “scientific” approaches typically do, but rather on the micronutrients that constitute the major nutritional values that we humans desire from our crops. It has been said that plants will do alright with just Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus but that is a lie. Like an airbrushed model, you can make them look pretty good and desirable with the big three nutrients, but plant health depends on far more than that.

First, there needs to be some sort of structure, to hold the nutrient. Without organisms and something to absorb, adsorb and hold the nutrients, they will just wash away or down through the root zone and be lost to ground or surface water. This would have been the case if I had put fertilizer in my cinder pile of a yard. In the end that year, what finally killed the garden was the chlorine in the city water that I used to try to keep the plants alive in their parched location. By killing off the few microbes and organisms that were trying to gain a foothold in that environment, all hope for the plants was lost. By my second year on that bit of ground, I had added over one hundred cubic feet of compost and the drainage that the cinders provided was not enough to overcome the holding capacity of the soil that I was creating there. I had also put out a few rain barrels and could water safely. The difficulty that we had that year was a flood which nearly submerged the entire garden for about ten days during the hottest time of the year.

The swings in temperature, moisture and climate that we are experiencing now make understanding and rehabilitating soils around the planet a priority if we are to achieve sustainability. Unless we begin to pay attention to the health and welfare of our soil, there will be little hope of getting a handle on recovering enough arable land to stave off large scale starvation and food wars. My own study of soils began early in life. As many youngsters do, I loved to play in puddles and feel the squishy-squash of mud between the toes. However, once stomped in puddles would dry up and it seemed to me would forever after, the soil would remain devoid of growth.

This is one of the first things many of us learn about soil. Building structure takes time, but ruining it can happen almost instantly. All winter long we can walk on soil, it is perhaps better to explore and learn about our landscape when the growing season is but a memory, getting to know the low spots and where all the ridges are can help us to plan both what should be planted where and what areas need a bit of extra attention. The worst time to traipse through our garden beds or fields is when the ice is going out or when they are excessively wet. This can ruin structure that takes years to develop. The word structure is misleading. You will not find anything,really, being built, but on a microscopic level there are associations that are even more important than the macronutrients N,P&K. There are fungi that build networks of cilia, which probe and hold organic material, feeding on waste products of decomposition, bacterial colonies that can build tiny pockets and by their very nature, these colonies act like sponges, soaking up excess moisture when it is available and tenaciously holding it during drought. Those who respect this culture of life never want to turn over soil or disturb it during the time that it is saturated. The rule of thumb that my grandmother used was that if you can squeeze a handful of soil and drops of water or mud come out, it is too wet to work.

The billions of organisms that live under our feet are easily the easiest to forget about and most difficult to observe. In my experience, the cultural aspects that are alive and working in soils are easier to see in their absence. There are vast areas that get plowed up each year that can be seen as dead zones. In these areas, the cropping has been so intense that nothing even resembling soil is left on the surface. These areas were very easy to spot just one short moon ago when the winter drifts were occasionally covered with the red, white or gray particles that blew over from adjoining fields. Intact soil structure and management that respects the living culture that is necessary for fields to be healthy would hold the soil particles in place, not let the last bit of organic material or the finest particles be lacerated by blowing ice particles or blow away entirely forever being lost to erosion. The other thing that we see in our region routinely is the fields where every eminence is a gravel pile. These areas have had the soils blown off for so many generations that there is nothing but sand or gravel left behind.

As I stated before, we can apply N,P&K to this matrix of geologic material, but the “food” produced in these conditions will be as hollow and vapid as the caricature that we have of the “dumb blonde” or “soulless ginger”. Like so many things in our culture, we forget that beauty that is only skin deep is not a beauty worth having. True beauty comes from the soul and radiates outward. The soul of our agricultural land, in many cases, has been hollowed out like a taxidermists mount. Of course, on the one hand, there is nothing to rot out there, but the biggest concern for those who know about soils is there is nothing to rot out there! A friend tried to counter me on this a few weeks ago and he said, “At least we put manure back on the land adding important nutrients.” While this is somewhat true, the net removal of nutrient is the rule rather than the exception. We are a dairy state and with each cow producing over five gallons of milk each day, that is a lot of nutrients leaving the typical dairy farm. Putting their manure back on the land replaces only a tiny fraction of the food that soil organisms need to stay healthy.

One of the most difficult things for me to hear, and I heard it a lot when I was searching for enough land to start an ecologically sustainable farm, was the statement, “That is good organic land.” It has been in hay for thirty years. It has never had anything put on it.” That means that for thirty years, nearly everything that sprouted up from the earth was stripped off and removed. I have even heard well-meaning farmers say that spreading manure on fields that are meant for hay will make their animals sick. While hay fields are often not ravaged as much by erosive forces, their nutrient density and soil quality can be nearly as bad as over tilled wasteland that has been destroyed through cash cropping or silage production. Trying to look at the mass balance of nutrients in soil can be daunting, but even if you raise cattle for beef, you can assure that at least the weight of the animals, and all the nutrients it took to build their bodies is leaving when they go to slaughter. Unless we give back in equal measure, we are running blind into the brick wall of extraction. One day, no matter how rich the soil was when we started, there will come a time when the land is played out.

Creating a matrix of organic material, biologically active microbial communities and building the nutritional value of our soils can only be accomplished by a three pronged approach. The first part is to add material. some of the most important things that I have found to create the foundation of soil life is clippings from lawns, leaves and food waste, but that is because they seem to be the most readily available materials for me. If I ran a coffee shop, for instance, coffee grounds would be a disposal problem, unless I could find a place to compost them or add them to soil. If I produced wood products, perhaps sawdust would become a disposal problem, unless I could find a place to incorporate them into soil. If I were a manufacturer of products, perhaps wood pallets would become a disposal problem. Treating the soils with more respect may be as simple as redirecting our organic waste to places that need the nutrients and inputs that are creating problems by their very abundance. In some cases, the nutrients can be too concentrated, or too tightly bound up to be of use so some processing may be in order before we can safely land apply them, but  looking into the ways we feed the soil are crucial to the recovery of our arable land. Coffee grounds, for example would need to be composted with other materials to release their potential energy and nutrition. Sawdust or wood pallets can also present a problem if not broken down, composted or put through a pyrolysis process which creates bio-char and allows us to put carbon into soils rather than into the atmosphere. Meat products as well would require special handling and pre-treatment or “digestion” before being applied in most areas because of the hazard they would present if we simply put them on the surface to rot.

Many municipalities are now creating huge composting facilities, but the operators of these sites often do not know what they are doing and the net result is to have them become clearing houses for invasive weed seeds. One local effort to reforest a wildlife area in my city, using the city-made compost as fertilizer and mulch for young trees led to infesting hundreds of acres with garlic mustard, which while edible is not used nearly enough to keep it in check, so it is running rampant across many many acres of land, crowding out native vegetation. Increasing inputs will not be enough by themselves. Often, we need to inoculate them, or add bacteria, fungal spores or nutritional components that are lacking. when we add lots of dry, brown material for instance, in can consume much of the nitrogen available to plants. If we indulge our soils with plenty of green stuff, say grass clippings, it can choke off growth by being too rich. Plants may lack structure and become watery and weak, prone to tipping over or being blown down in the slightest wind. augmenting the elements that are lacking, especially the living organisms that are what we are really trying to support can be tricky. As I mentioned, most of these creatures and organisms are too small to see. We may see the affects or results of their presence but without a microscope, we must learn to understand that they are invisible, but essential to our present as well as our future. Inoculation could come in the form of compost tea, fish emulsion fertilizer or enzymatic concoctions designed to speed decomposition, but what I have found is that the choices we make may not be as important as creating a viable soil matrix with plenty of organic material within which the microbes can thrive. When I make compost, I always try to add at least a few handfuls of healthy soil to the pile for every cubic foot of material that I put on the pile. This and enough moisture to make the material feel like a wet sponge are critical to creating a good soil amendment.

The third thing necessary for the rehabilitation of soils is protecting them. I always try to keep about four inches (10cm) of mulch on top of the soil. If you decide to use newsprint as mulch to keep weeds down, I would still use some mulch on top just to keep the paper from blowing away. Over time the mulch breaks down and will need to be treated as soil, getting another layer of protective material between the wind and sun and the precious soils underneath. Remember that direct sun on soil will sterilize it as surely as an autoclave, but what actually nourishes plants is the symbiosis between a myriad number and types of soil microbes. Allowing the circle of life to enrich us requires that we encourage the circles of life within the soils to be complex, vital and rich. If I can take rock hard clay that would not even grow grass and turn it into a source of over 1/3 of our food needs in just a few years, anyone can do it by using the same simple steps. Compost, compost and compost, learn to feed your soil organisms and watch the development carefully. I continue to learn from my land and anyone who pays some attention can learn to do the same.

My next major undertaking is going to be to create beds that are naturally more acidic and continue to keep some more alkaline by simply tailoring their composts to the different soil types. It may take a few seasons of effort, but the process has already begun and I am having some success after just one year of thoughtful adaptation.

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About otherfishwrap

One of the last of the Baby Boomers, I remember where I was when JFK was shot. Good story. Born during the Cuban Missile Crisis, my life has been spent studying, practicing skills and attitudes that reflect justice and the sanctity of Earth, Air, Fire, Water & Spirit. Trained as an educator, my life has been devoted to cultural development and social justice.
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