The Secret’s In The Soil

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.”
― Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture

It has taken many years for this obvious but overlooked truth to sink into my head. But like anything that is slow to sink in.. it has set like concrete to form a foundation for all related knowledge to be built upon.

If we look back at our farmer-ancestors behaviour, we can plainly see that the fertility and health of the soil was foremost in their priorities. They understood their role as stewards of the land, maintaining a balance between human needs and nature’s leads. The soil teemed with life, the hedgerows were abundant sanctuaries for wildlife, and the water in the ditches was clean enough to drink. Today the picture is very different.

So, what can we do to help protect and build more of this most valuable resource?
Well, if you are lucky enough to have land, the first priority is to ensure that no chemicals are introduced. This includes synthetic fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, even household cleaners and chemical soaps can be detrimental if you are managing your own grey water [in reed-bed systems for instance].

The second step is to protect against erosion or other degradation, for example, from having too many animals in one field, or keeping large animals on wet land over winter, which causes destruction of soil structure, compaction and erosion through water run-off in muddy areas.

The soil must always be covered, either by living cover of some description or a mulch, preferably organic. If it is necessary to use a non-breathable membrane as a way to clear land of persistent weeds, it is important to remove it within 6 months. Soil, and the organisms within it, need to breathe.

There are several techniques for building soil fertility, but first it is useful to have a clear idea of the condition of your soil. There are several tests that will give you some idea of this. The basic tests, like soil acidity, can be carried out with a very simple test kit, which can be purchased at most gardening suppliers. For a more detailed picture, it is possible to have your soil professionally analysed. This can cost anything from 15 to 150€, depending on the number and type of elements tested for. There are numerous trace minerals and nutrients that should be present in a healthy soil, not to mention the average of several million living organisms in a cubic inch.. but these tests usually focus on the essential and most present elements.

MINERALS & TRACE ELEMENTS

Phosphate [P] -This is one of the “Big 3” in terms of vital ingredients for plant growth {NPK}. The best way to add it is through Colloidal Phosphate rock-dust. It should also be present in good compost, and is depleted through cultivation of crops, so it is advisable to supplement regularly, say once every 4 years, if you are growing intensively on the land.

Potassium[K]- The second element in the NPK combination {Nitrogen completes the trio}. There are huge amounts of this element readily available in biologically active soil, so if you can improve the health of your soil, the Potassium level will take care of itself.

Lime- The odd one out here, it isn’t added for it’s inherent qualities, but is quite effective in reducing the acidity in soils. The preferred level for most crops is around ph 6 to 7, with most soils coming in well below this level. Just like the human body, the soil is also prone to disease if it is in an acidic state.

Boron [B]- Essential for correct meri-stem growth and for carbohydrate metabolism, synthesis of nucleic acids and pollination.

Iron [Fe]- Essential for chlorophyll formation and protein synthesis.

Manganese [Mn] – Leaf colour, photosynthesis and protein synthesis.

Zinc [Zn] – Essential for the correct functioning of many enzyme systems and used in metabolism of  plant hormone “Auxim”.

Copper [Cu]- Needed for plant enzyme components such as nitrogen reductuse and is also required for management of lignin.

Magnesium [Mg] – A vital mineral in the functioning of a healthy system. It is believed that Magnesium deficiencies in the soil are a cause of widespread ill-health in the population, as the plants that grow in this soil are also deficient, therefore we are deprived of it.

Sodium [Na]- Another important element in all living systems.

In order to provide a depleted soil with a broad spectrum of these ingredients, it is possible to source rock-dust [the most effective being Basalt] and seaweed powder, both of which contain many of the above items. There is also a product called “greensand marl” which comprises of deposits from ancient sea beds.

GREEN MANURES

One way to “mine” some of these minerals from deep in the sub-soil and bedrock, is to grow green manures. These are basically non-cash crops that can be ploughed back under to add fertility, especially nitrogen. The most popular green manures are those which “fix” nitrogen on their root nodules. This simply means that they sequester nitrogen from the atmosphere and convert it into a usable form underground. Examples of nitrogen-fixing or “leguminous” green manures would be Clover, Vetch and Field beans. If deep-rooting plants are sown, they  will bring up [mine] otherwise unavailable minerals and nutrients from the sub-soil, which will then be incorporated into the topsoil when the green manure is turned under.

Green manures can be fitted into a rotation system, they can also be used for grazing, which adds valuable animal manure to the list of benefits. Another technique that can have further advantages is to sow a green manure under an existing crop, which brings the extra benefit of suppressing weed growth and retaining moisture.

ORGANIC MATTER

This constituent is arguably the most important, as it supports the soil-life and provides the bulk of the nitrogen for living plants. Some common sources of organic matter include; animal manure, seaweed, composted material, leaf mould [composted leaves], and of course, Seaweed, my personal favourite because it contains so many trace minerals that have been sequestered from the ocean and can easily be assimilated into the soil. I have found seaweed to be an excellent material to work with. Easy to apply, breaks down quickly, activates compost, and gives your spuds a lovely flavour!

INDUSTRIAL AGRICULTURE V’S TRADITIONAL LAND MANAGEMENT

In modern farming, there is a high dependence on outside inputs to “feed the plants”, with the soil acting merely as an anchor for the plant’s roots. This system makes the assumption that man can mimic perfectly the life-giving properties of a fertile soil, a dangerous delusion that translates to extremely damaging practices and produce which, at best, is empty of any nutritional value or goodness and at worst, is full of poisonous chemicals. The commonly-used NPK fertiliser is primarily composed of synthetic ingredients, some of which are products of the petroleum industry. in other words, we are eating crude oil in a refined state..

To illustrate the difference between the two farming methods, let me borrow a metaphor used by Eliot Coleman in his classic manual “The New Organic Grower”..

Imagine the plants are students, preparing for an exam. Feeding the plant with synthetic fertiliser and suppressing the weeds and pests with chemicals, would be like giving the student all the answers before the exam. Whereas feeding the soil, developing it’s life-force, achieving a healthy balance in the microbial life, allowing the soil to provide for the plants needs, is equivalent to cultivating an inquisitive mind and providing the access to information in the student. A healthy fertile soil will improve with each growing season,supporting plants that are less dependant on human intervention and more resilient to adversity, as will the student who is allowed to fulfil their potential.

We are heading for an era when fossil fuels will not be so readily available, increasing ill-health, partly due to mineral deficiencies and polluted environments, will cripple our economies and deplete our standard of living. Barren soils are being washed out to sea and our greatest allies, the birds, bees and worms are being decimated by chemical industrial agriculture. This all begins and ends with the health of our soil, the greatest resource at our disposal is rapidly being depleted by our actions. When we buy the produce of this agricultural model, we support it.. while being slowly poisoned.

We must make a stand on this precious earth, to protect our life-support system, and that of our co-inhabitants. The soil is the key to our health, our wealth and our legacy to every living thing that comes after us.

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About microfarmer

On a mission.. to share my passion.. for growing pure food in a thriving soil.. other related passions include.. agroforestry, woodcraft, natural materials, alternative/ appropriate tech., travelling and learning, food and herbal medicine. Working co-operatively to create meaningful livliehoods and innovative solutions
This entry was posted in Environmental Conservation, Food, Gardening, Health, Permaculture, Politics, Traditional Agriculture, Transition, water and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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