Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants = Healthy People!
It’s true! The soil is a matrix of living organisms regulating the cycle and flow of nutrients. Its organisms interconnect and share both information and immune responses to pests and disease. When the soil is full of life, full of minerals, and packed with nutrients, the benefits translate all the way up the food chain!1, 2, 3
What is healthy soil?
Gardeners and farmers know good soil by their senses. In a well-tended garden, the topsoil is deep, porous, and dark. The soil crumbles in your hands and feels moist. It has texture—you can see bits of woody material and larger soil organisms. It smells like “good dirt.” Studies have even shown this occurs because healthy soil gives off beneficial chemical compounds that boost your immune system.4, 5 Because the soil is “light and fluffy,” air and water infiltrate it easily. Roots can move through good soil easily.
Healthy soil is full of life—a balance of micro and macro-organisms. It’s a microcosm in each tablespoon of soil. If you want to know how much life thrives around your garden plants, try a soil test from SOIL FOOD WEB, Inc. [http://www.soilfoodweb.com ].
Healthy Soil = Healthy Plants
Healthy soil leads to healthy plants. Healthy plants have strong cell walls and vibrant color. They are free of blemishes—or contain few. They almost glow because of how they reflect the light. Having the right balance of soil nutrients—bioavailable minerals, moisture, etc…. allow plants to grow healthy cells full of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals (chemical compounds made by plants) that build a stronger you.
One not-so-secret secret to get the best nutrition from your plants is to grow your own and pick your produce fresh. We can go beyond organic food—which makes sure our foods are not treated with biocides (pesticides and herbicides). We can look for organic, local, in season, and fresh whole foods. These are more likely to have their nutrients in tact. In addition, we can grow our own food or buy food from farmers that know how to grow nutrient-dense foods that have a high quality and standards of nutrition. Farmers employing permaculture and biodynamic techniques are exploring how to grow nutrient dense foods.
You can do the same by following these practices:
1. Get to know your soil. Every soil is different. Most of our soils have been damaged by deforestation, ill-informed farming practices, or construction. So, it’s pretty normal for our native soils to be lacking in something. There are two things you can do right away to get to know your soil better.
First, you can do a simple soil test by digging just below the surface (no grass roots), and putting 2 cups of soil in a clear mason jar or other jar. Fill the jar with water and shake it up. Over the next 23-36 hours—or until the water is clear, the soil particles will settle out. The larger sand particles settle first. Then the loamy particles will settle. Clay particles are very small and may stay suspended for some time. Finally, the organic matter (bits of twigs and flakes of leaves, for example) will float on the top. You can see the ratio of sand:clay:silt/loam:organic matter that you have in your soil. This can help you determine how best to work with your native soil. For example, if you have a lot of sand, your soils will drain quickly and you will need to give extra consideration to watering.
The second important thing to do to get to know your soil is to do a soil test. If you suspect lead is present in your soils, there are often programs through the county health department to test for heavy metals. County extension agents or soil and water conservation districts also do general soil tests. These can help you to know if your soil is lacking in a key mineral or substance that will lead to success. For more on soil tests, follow this link.
2.Add some key minerals Once you know you don’t have toxins to avoid, the next step is putting the right things into the soil. Adding the right soil amendments depends upon the mineral content of your native soil. In my Midwestern, limestone-based soil, I usually add rock phosphate and Jersey greensand. These are mined minerals that pack a punch in our garden soils.
Broccoli, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables feed heavily on calcium. You would think that by living on a limestone-based soil these veggies would be happy in my garden—but, no. They need a form of calcium that they can take up easily. So, I add crushed, or powdered, egg shells from our breakfast to help them out. To do this, I wait until the shells are dry. Then crush them up a bit in our mortar and pestle. I take the powdered shells out to the garden, pull back the mulch, apply, and move the mulch back in place. Green Sand, Rock Dust, Bone Meal and Kelp are also valuable sources of these necessary minerals.
Every area has a different soil composition. You’ll need to adjust which minerals you import into your garden accordingly. A visit to a local nursery or garden center can provide valuable insights into the soil common in your area. A soil test from the county agricultural extension office may come in handy for a more complete picture. Here is a map of the dominant soil orders in the United States.
3.Bring on the mushrooms! Unless you are growing grains or other grasses, you will want to top your soils toward a fungally-dominated soil. Fungi are an important part of soil life. We’ve known for decades that fungi connect trees in a forest and allow them to share information through an exchange of sugars and chemicals. This allows the trees interconnected to pick up on pests or diseases in one part of the forest and begin to produce an immune response before the disease or pests get to them. The original internet! Now, this study has been replicated and shows the same relationship between fungi and plants smaller than trees.6, 7
4.Incorporate organic matter Whether your soil is too sandy, too full of clay, or likely to salt when irrigation water evaporates and leaves salts, adding organic matter is almost always part of the way to bring your soil into a healthy balance. By incorporating compost into your garden and by mulching your plants appropriately, you are building up the organic matter (read carbon) in your soil. Most soils in North America have 2-3% organic matter. Healthy soil can have 19-25% organic matter (carbon). This is exciting for those of us worried about carbon and climate change. It means that with appropriate farming and gardening, we can pull carbon out of the atmosphere.
Also, if you are eating a healthy diet, the compost created from the kitchen will bring a balance of minerals and nutrients to your soil—and pass that onto your plants.
5.Worms are your friends! Red wigglers or other earthworms can build excellent soil quickly. Though earthworms are not native to North America (and red wigglers won’t survive a freeze), these little critters are very useful.
Vermicomposting (composting with worms) is one of the best means of creating healthy, fertile soils. When other dirt bugs show up, welcome them. They are a sign your soil is becoming a healthy ecosystem. *
*Not all bugs are good news. Some soil organisms harm your plants and other insects can do the same, but if you allow your soil to become a balanced, healthy ecosystem, it will repel real threats.
These practices will build up healthy soil—and think of how many of them are also practiced in the Garden Tower!