Soil--It's More Than Dirt

In her book, The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson recounts the story of being able to push a 4-foot pole down into a farmer's corn field up to her knuckles.  She was able to do it several times in different places, proving that the farmer, Gabe Brown, had completely transformed his soil from the Dust Bowl desert he had purchased into a farm that had become easier and cheaper, not harder and more costly, to run.  

Gabe Brown started by not tilling his fields.  He said it didn't make sense to till the field and then complain that the soil was dry.  He began using a no-till drill that makes a tiny slit in the soil, drops a seed inside, then quickly seals the gap.  Second, Brown began using an ever-increasing variety of cover crops in the off season that prevented erosion and added organic matter and carbon to the soil.  Below the soil there are billion of microorganisms which provide nutrients to the plants if their habitat isn't disrupted.  Lastly, he began grazing his cattle in small, constantly moving corrals on his land.  The cattle didn't stay long enough to overgraze the grasses and they fertilized the penned area.   Brown found that he didn't need fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides.  The land was so much more productive that he was able to discontinue leasing such a large area, allowing him more time to fine-tune his stewardship ideas.

So here are some ideas, culled from Gabe Brown's experience, to try in your home garden this year:

  1. Minimize bare dirt.  Plant closely in the growing season and use mulch between plants.  Instead of leaving your soil bare in off season, install a cover crop "cocktail" to prevent erosion and add organic matter and carbon to the soil.
  2. Make compost.  Toss kitchen scraps, old leaves, prunings, (not weeds) into a composter to build a rich mix that will help soil thrive and provide habitat for native organisms.  This reduces waste in landfills, too.
  3. Do not disturb.  Each time you churn soil, you're disrupting the habitat created by billions of microorganisms.  The less disruption, the better.
  4. Avoid chemicals.  Pesticides and herbicides kill indiscriminately, alter the food web in your garden, and harm beneficial pollinators and birds.  Chemical fertilizers can interfere with the natural feeding relationship between plants and soil microorganisms.
  5. Don't use peat.  Peat comes from fragile bogs that need protection, so use locally sourced soil additives such as farm manure, wood waste, or leaf mold.

Excerpted fromKristin Ohlson, "More Than Dirt", National Wildlife Federation Magazine, March, 2017