soil. beautiful soil

Ok. So I don't mind getting a bit grubby in the garden; in fact I quite like it, but what is this soil stuff we tread on/in/generally take for granted?

Have you ever stopped to think about what it is made from? Grab a handful of yours and if you have any small people in the house, ask them what they think it is made from. Not only are they slightly closer to the ground than we are generally, a lot of them if they have access to it love playing with it too, and will probably surprise you with some perceptive answers.

I asked my daughter what is soil made from, and she says -' it's mud mum'. Well she's right in part, and there are many character types of soil/mud - depending on where it is from and what has naturally eroded (rock), or been added to it :
Soil facts:

"A spoonful of healthy soil can contain more living organisms than there are people on the planet. The more fertile the soil is, the more organisms it has living in it. These organisms include bacteria and fungi, as well as larger soil creatures like nematodes, earthworms and ants. All are important for the health of soil."

"Soil is a mixture of minerals from rocks (45%), organic matter derived from decaying plant and animal material, plus the tiny living creatures in the soil (5%) – along with air (25%) and water (25%)."

(Sustainable Food Trust)
The basic character of a soil is most easily categorized by the ‘soil triangle’ – 
Wikipedia; Soil Texture
This means that the different character of soil everywhere – offering different communities of plants various living requirements; drainage, feed, oxygen, hummus all enjoy their own balance.
This means that the different character of soil everywhere – offering different communities of plants various living requirements; drainage, feed, oxygen, hummus all enjoy their own balance.

But there are other constituent parts to the soil; nutrients, flora and fauna to name but a few, all of which arguably play their part and which we mostly take for granted, and are largely ignorant of despite published findings as they are often supressed – regarding their natural state, importance and erosion globally over the last century and a half.

Feeding the soil has become a passion of mine – maybe even an obsession. I have learn’t to see that quite simply the healthier the soil, and the better it is fed, the healthier the plants, the more bountiful the produce, the more taste, the higher level of nutrient contained, the better the flowers – the list of benefits goes on. I’m on this quest for my clients in their gardens, our own garden at home and our allotment – all of which have different expectations of them.
We’ve been trying for some years to achieve a ‘clay loam’ on essentially a very clay soil to the benefit of a variety of fruit and vegetable plants at our allotment plot. Having added probably close to 40 tonnes of bark chip, horse manure, vegetable scraps, prunings, glass clippings, recycled cardboard, compost over the last 11 years we are finally getting close – but it doesn’t stop there. Every time there is a new crop to be installed there is a fresh addition of organic content appropriate. Because every year the plants suck up the nutrients, hummus and carbon, which needs to be replenished if a healthy environment for growing these hungry beings is to be achieved.

Sometimes for beans we dig a pit underneath the bed to be used and use the ‘lasagne’ technique so that the future beans have access to a resource below their roots, which helps make them stronger and also proofs against drying out. The fruit areas have a heavy mulch of horse manure and compost, topped with bark chip, the pathways all get weeded and bark chip mulched – eventually breaking down to become excellent soil conditioner, the wild hedge gets a bark chip mulch which helps save on watering and gives the bugs somewhere to live, and all the beds get newly composted mixtures from the heaving compost heap plus whatever other organic matter and feed we have to hand; rock dust, chicken pellets, calcified seaweed replacement, old yoghurt, bonemeal, blood fish and bone, wormery compost and water, manure, compost.

We got all excited by the ‘HugelKulture’ idea for efficient water and nutrient conservation and growing which is also totally doable on small scale production and can be done even as a tiny two foot test bed – but actually we are yet to put it into practice. Basically, you dig a hole, put larger wood at the bottom, branches, then twigs, then kitchen scraps and manure, and finishing with soil. As the pile begins to decay, nutrients are released along with microbial communities of bacteria, mycellium, carbon and the wood becomes a sponge for water. An awesome environment for worms and plants – a permanent planting method not requiring further digging. Still looking forward to trying this method out.
Building raised beds
So feeding the soil takes effort, enthusiasm and time, but it really can be done according to your time, resource and space availability. Only in nature do soil, organic matter, trees and plants really achieve a balanced natural synergy. Take a forest floor as a good example, with the leaves and fallen trees constantly renewing the hummus on the floor minimising water loss, and the natural bacteria and mycellium networks underground accessing the best available water and nutrients, – (see the interactive sculpture at Kew Gardens to illustrate this perfectly under the tree canopy walk). Interestingly, it is on the edge/ in small clearings of forest that The Medieaval Germans developed Hugelkuture. Amazonian dwellers also developed their own cultivation methods in synergy with their forest which has only in recent years been recognised by photo data collected by satellites.

How long does it take to make a soil in nature?

"The time needed to form a soil depends on the latitude: in environments characterized by a mild climate, it takes 200-400 years to form 1 cm of soil. In wet tropical areas soil formation is faster, as it takes 200 years. In order to accumulate enough substances to make a soil fertile it takes 3000 years."

(Eniscuola; Soil formation)

So the forest floor has got it’s system sorted, (unless over disturbed by human intervention), as may have well managed grasslands where organic matter is allowed to build, and the permies and regular gardeners continue to add their composts and amendments to keep their soils healthy, but how are the farmers doing globally and locally with managing their soils?

Sheffield uni – quotes worryingly, not that great, citing that in particular ‘Britain has less than 100 harvest left’

(Independent; 100 harvests left)

Due to over compacting our soils with increasingly heavy machinery, over digging and destroying valuable soil structure and communities, removing of potential for hummus and natural nutrient and carbon addition, removal of hedges and wild plant communities and wetlands that help stop soil erosion, damaging drainage by over compaction, by not adding back organic materials minerals and compounds used up by growing and destroyed by chemicals, over irrigating the land and increasing salination and by also poluting the soils with chem fertilisers and pesticides we are not only compromising the health of the soil, but the crops, the natural environment, our health and that of the whole, jeopardising future capacity to cope with demand as well as our present needs.

It is ‘International year of the soils’ so to help our awareness of the importance of soil health here are a few key points;
  • Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production.
  • Soils are the foundation for vegetation which is cultivated or managed for feed, fibre, fuel and medicinal products.
  • Soils support our planet’s biodiversity and they host a quarter of the total.
  • Soils help to combat and adapt to climate change by playing a key role in the carbon cycle.
  • Soils store and filter water, improving our resilience to floods and droughts.
  • Soil is a non-renewable resource; its preservation is essential for food security and our sustainable future'
(; Soils)

We as a hungry and ever growing world population expect to have food in our markets and supermarkets, but to what cost? Are we doomed to believe the unsustainable hype and eat our chemical influenced and low nutrient veggies and fruit and grains and be grateful that some of us have so much of it, as the deserts become larger?

‘Half of the topsoil on the planet has been lost in the last 150 years’,

(World Wildlife; Soil erosion)

Surely even the non organic farmers must be smelling a rat, trapped into industrial chem reliant food production, with little subsidy for environmental consideration?

There are some actions afoot to help secure soils most in jeopardy, with Morocco, The African Union and China in particular developing strategies for planting green walls of trees to stop further desertification:

(The Guardian; Great green wall)

But more has to be done across the planet and it is possible, we can join up the dots.

There are even studies proving soil actually contains microbes called Mycobacterium vaccae which work as antidepressants;

(Gardening know how; antidepressant microbes)

Make time to do something positive, no matter how small.

If we all take responsibility for decisions made so far, we can establish soil security, and we had better get our collective skates on. Here are a few ideas.
  • Spend time in Nature. It feels good
  • Grow at home, or in a community garden or allotment, feed the soil, eat the produce. Urban production will be a key factor in future food security, and you gotta feed that soil…keep it Organic
  • Compost at home
  • Mulch flower and veggie beds with appropriate mulches to help stop water and nutrient and soil loss and even build future soil
  • Keep a wormery
  • Join the Soil Association to keep abreast of current policy making decisions by DEFRA that need healthy challenge, best practices and good ideas for home cultivation, Community and School links and resources
  • Shop local – find the closest local market supporting local producers. We love Crystal Palace Transition Town Food Market. Find yours here; 
  • Look for local community farms and support them in their work. We have Sutton Community Farm near to us. Find yours here: Community Supported Agriculture
  • Teach the kids – there are lots of fun activities to do which can trigger connected thinking re the environment. The Soil Association and local Forest Schools have resources to tap if you run out. I’m making wildflower seed bombs using local soil with - our local Nursery next term for a giggle – should be fun
  • Join in the debate re soil health. Talk or email your MP on the matter, look for active bodies that need support on the surrounding issues; 38 Degrees and soil Association both have active petitions on subjects implicated to the debate, for example The campaign against the use of Glyphosate on UK Wheat crops ‘Not in our bread’
  • Join local Friendly Societies Protecting wild meadows and woods areas from development, and promote the reinstallation of wetlands and conservation areas, there are precious few left and they are all important in protecting diversity and world health. 
Small is big. It’s never too late to get your garden great

What will you do to love your soil?