Your soil is full of live -- or should be. The soil life works for us if we let it. Soil life is why the rain forest, or a woodland, grows plants and supports animals without our input. It's a complicated and amazing system. This should be innate knowledge and we would do well to copy nature's systems when we garden or care for our property, but our technology-driven society has largely lost track of the connections.
Unfortunately, many garden practices are based on a flawed paradigm, and gardeners copy some agricultural systems and follow a quick-fix "reductionist" approach in which soil is just a series of chemical components rather than a system. The result of managing soil that way is that soil life is destroyed and not much is happening that is natural. Food for the planet starts with the soil, and soil life is the activator. In the most summarized version, let's look at what's happening in soil and what to do about it.
Balancing the equation
Two really bad habits have led to the loss of soil that took billions of years to form -- most of it lost forever. (For example, in many places 2 feet of topsoil is now down to 4 inches, and in many states half the topsoil is gone.) Overplowing and overgrazing without covering the land led to erosion -- dramatically illustrated by the 1930s dust bowl. The situation has only been partially corrected.
Using up the nutrient potential of the soil -- by constantly taking out without putting back -- continues the insult.Supplying a few chemicals to make plants grow is not balancing the equation at all. Sir Albert Howard, the father of organic agriculture, wrote about the "altogetherness" of the soil organisms/plant growth system. Today, enlightened farmers and organic gardeners still put at least half their work into rebuilding and covering soil constantly -- with composting methods, cover crops, manure management, inter-cropping and intensive planting systems. Those are models to follow, easily do-able in a home garden or yard. Figure out how to put the nutrients back, how to feed the soil organisms, and how not to destroy or lose the soil life that is there.
How you can do it
Soil care is a lifestyle -- worth books not just a paragraph -- but basically you can protect and rebuild living soil in your garden by continuously supplying organic matter, primarily as compost. Healthy soil doesn't need artificial fertilizers. Just keep putting organic matter (O.M.) back into and onto the soil. Micro-organisms process that organic matter and produce plant-ready nutrients. Cover your soil with organic mulch. Then don't lose or wreck the soil you have. Don't compact it or let it run off in the rain or your watering.
As more is studied about a still-mysterious underground world, products that increase and stimulate some "mycorrhizae" (some members of the micro-organism community) are becoming available. Next week we'll look at these organisms and talk about using old-fashioned manure tea and new bio-stimulator products. For now, start making compost and gathering O.M.
Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.