Building the soil is perhaps the most direct influence we have on our environment for future generations. While many people do not think about soil as a living, breathing ecosystem, millions of organisms call it home and all life depends on its health.
The agricultural definition of soil is “a dynamic natural body on the surface of the earth in which plants grow, composed of mineral and organic material, and living forms,” (Brady, 1997). Healthy soil is alive with a web of life that includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and larger creatures such as worms. This web of life breaks down organic matter in order to make the nutrients available to plant roots, they condition the soil and create air pockets necessary for aeration and drainage, and they can protect area from more harmful organisms.
Due to drought, early hunter-gatherer people were forced to settle near fresh water and adapt to an agricultural lifestyle about 12,000 years ago. Soil erosion began with the dawn of agriculture, when people removed the protective vegetation cover and grew food crops on disturbed soil surfaces. Since then, civilizations have been forced to relocate or ceased to exist because of soil degradation. In Dirt: the Erosion of Civilizations, David Montomery (2012) describes how the Phoenicians, the Roman Empire, Mesopotamia, and ancient peoples of present-day Syria and Lebanon are all believed to have collapsed as a result of deforestation, erosion, and salination in the Middle East.The Indus valley civilizations and the collapse of the 1700-year-old Mayan civilization in Guatemala is also attributed to accelerated soil erosion. More recently, The Dust Bowl occurred because of the degradation of the top soil, drought, over-grazing, and high winds. Life on earth is dependent on soil and our civilization could collapse if we continue to degrade it.
Conventional agriculture taught farmers that by using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides they would increase yields. We know now that the agricultural chemicals are killing the web of life leading to long-term soil degradation and erosion.
There are many strategies to rebuild the soil that people can practice. Buying organic food is one step as this food does not rely on synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. Organic producers are required to practice sustainable methods that protect and build the soil. Your food won’t be covered in chemicals either.
In your garden, build your soil by using organic soil additives such as manure, peat moss, compost, straw, leaves, etc. Organic matter adds nutrients to the soil as well as increases the amount of moisture and structure. Try adding these through no-till methods such as double- digging, using a spader instead of a tiller, or a broad-fork that do not destroy the structure.
Planting legumes such as beans, peas, lentils, and others rebuilds the soil through adding nitrogen through their roots. Companion planting these species can support current crops or you can rotate the legume crop through your garden on different years.
Worm castings are full of microbes and are easy to make. Red Wigglers are the champions of bucket compost and are ideal for cold climates as they easily fit under the cabinet. They
produce castings that can be added to planters, gardens, or to the compost bin to multiply.
Hugelkultur is another method that can be used in gardening either at ground level or in raised-beds. Basically, you soak wood and burry it, cover with compost and soil, and plant on top of it. I used that technique in Rangely, which is a desert, and our apple trees are still alive with little water or additional fertilizer. The wood holds moisture, creates a positive environment for microbes, and breaks down into soil eventually.
After implementing the soil, cover it with mulch. Good mulch ideas include leaves, straw, peat moss, and some use compost. Mulch protects the soil and living-organisms from the wind and sun. It helps hold in moisture and can add nutrients from the top down.
There are many strategies to protect and build the soil. The important thing is that we all consider it our responsibility to either support growers of healthy soil, or do it ourselves. It is critical for our health and all life in the future.
Robyn Wilson has degrees in International Business, Sustainable Communities, and Bilingual and Multicultural Education. She teaches permaculture design at Colorado Mesa University. Robyn returned to Grand County to manage the cabin community of Grandma Miller’s New Horizons. Contact her for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org