The Life of the Soil
A well tended soil can boast a million species of bacteria in one gram–and that doesn’t count the fungi, molds, worms, and other creepy crawlies. This is a “living” soil. All these small inhabitants perform myriads of functions that maintain or grow the soil itself, feed plants, and exchange, sequester, or release nutrients and atmospheric gasses. These functions are all crucial to us.
Unfortunately, the folks who have developed our agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides since the 1950′s looked primarily at the plants growing on the surface. They got very good at feeding plants, killing weeds, and annihilating creepy crawlies. They neglected the life under the crust, to the great detriment of the soil. Farmers and gardners are facing the need to use more and more fertilizer and pesticides to get the same results because the soil is dead or dying and unable to truly nourish the plants, leaving them weak and vulnerable. Some weeds are even beginning to show resistance to Round-up.
All is not lost, though. You can grow soil for your plants, whether it’s lawn, flowers, or vegetables. There are two things to look at in a shovelful of dirt: minerals (the building blocks of life) and living creatures (the vehicles and factories for moving, storing, manufacturing, and making the minerals bioavailable to plants).
You can have your soil tested for mineral content by special labs, but keep in mind that different plants like different things. If you want high production from your garden plants (as a market gardener would), this is worth the investment. For a home gardener it can be simpler. The answer is compost. Compost is decomposed organic material. It is full of the vitamins and minerals from the material it was made from. You can add certain amendments, which we’ll cover another time (and for sure in the Soils and Biochar classes), but compost all by itself can be complete enough for most gardening. Compost is becoming easier to find all the time, but it’s also easy to make. We’ll cover that in class, too.
How to encourage “life?” Compost actually comes with the biology that made it. It is usually already alive with the decomposers of the soil. In addition you can add worms, leaf mold (a great source of nutrients and fungis and molds), and a 5 gallon bucket (or lots more) of dirt dug from a woods.
Biochar provides the perfect environment for encouraging a living soil. Charcoal in various degrees has been used by native cultures and third world farmers for centuries. It was discovered in the Amazon and provided the native tribes a way to grow food for a huge population on what is otherwise very poor soil. Biochar is the carbon carcass or organic material. Usually it is from wood, but can be made from bones, plants, or anything dense and organic. It is produced at high temperatures (much hotter than your woodstove or grill) so that the impurities and toxic gasses are consumed and what is left is very pure. The flora and fauna of your soil love to take up residence in the millions of apartments comprising the biochar. Nutrients can be stored and slow released as plants need them. The char will also act as a sponge for water so that the effects of drought are mitigated. This is most obvious in poorly nourished, arid soils. In good soils, you should find you need to add less compost or other amendments over time.
Here is a photo of our field trials with biochar. This was sweet corn planted in the field. It didn’t get water other than rain and dew. The yields were better from the corn on the right – bigger ears, better filled out. The biochar corn stayed green longer into the fall, making the earless stalks better fodder when we grazed them off. The beds were treated the same other than the biochar. This wasn’t an exactly scientific study, but it provides good anecdotal evidence for the effects biochar can have.
Soil is a living thing, not just dirt. You can have soil that will grow nutritious vegetables with the addition of compost. Plus, by adding biochar you can supercharge your soil. We can show you how!
References: National Geographic: A Cubic Foot
You can also read more about biochar on Baker’s Biochar.