Soil…there can be no life without it. It takes 2,000 years to create 10 cm of fertile soil within our eco-system. Step back for a second and imagine a world without food, clothes and shelter. Without these essentials, life here on earth would become exceptionally challenging don’t you think? Food, clothes and shelter are generally taken for granted by most of us, I’m guilty as well. Now you might ask when reading this why would you ask a question like that? And what does it have to do with soil? Let’s get into it.
Soil is directly or indirectly the reason we are fortunate enough to bare these essentials. Here are some examples to provide context. The fruit and vegetables we eat are grown in soil, the shirt you’re wearing may be made of cotton and cotton is grown in soil. The wood your house is made of comes from trees that grew in soil. Starting to see where I’m coming from and why soil is so important and why it must be conserved to the best of our ability? Before we can learn how to conserve it, we first must understand what soil is.
Soil is defined as the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles commonly referred to as the organic layer. Plants, trees, grass and so on and so forth, grow in the first 2 layers of soil. The organic layer as mentioned above and the top soil layer, which is where you’ll find additional organic and mineral matter that has leached through the organic layer into the top soil layer. Depending on where you live soil conditions vary from region to region.
There are 4 basic types of soil:
Loam is the ideal soil type because it’s nature’s perfect mix of sand, silt and clay combined in equal parts to create the perfect growing medium for all plant life.
To ensure conservation of this most precious resource there are 5 principles to follow which are outlined by Gabe Brown in his book Dirt to Soil:
- Limit disturbance of the soil
- Keep soil covered with plants
- Strive for diversity
- Maintain a living root system because it feeds the soil biology
- Integrate animals- nature does not function without animals
Now, there is one thing we haven’t discussed yet and that is keeping it natural and avoiding the use of chemical fertilizer.
Chemical fertilizers - What are they doing to your soil and you?
For decades traditional thinking and public perception has been that applying high nitrogen fertilizers containing synthetic nitrogen help increase carbon levels within soil by stimulating soil microbes. Research from the University of Illinois speaks to the contrary. The Morrow Plots located at the University of Illinois are the oldest agricultural experimental plots in the United States and the second oldest in the entire world. A great deal of soil studies take place at the Morrow Plots and what researchers have found is that carbon within the soil actually declines with the use of synthetic Nitrogen fertilizers.
The way it works
As high NPK fertilizers are added to the soil it initially stimulates the microbes to feed but eventually the organic matter within the soil disappears before it can ever be utilized. All of the soils organic matter and vital minerals and micro-nutrients are killed due to this excessive lashing of chemical fertilizer usage which in turn actually makes it more difficult for the soil to store carbon and nitrogen. As this happens the carbon within the soil continues to decline and the user will need to apply even more nitrogen. Your soil becomes dependent on these products and this creates the viscous cycle that our eco-system and environment so desperately needs to avoid. Your soils ability to hold nutrients, retain water and leaching of nutrients is greatly damaged. These types of fertilizers are essentially synthetic steroids for your soil. We’ve all seen those big guys in the gym who look muscular and healthy on the outside but when using heavy amounts of anabolic steroids there always consequences and we all know what they are doing to them on the inside. They are a ticking time bomb of health related issues forthcoming. The same is true with synthetic nitrogen or heavy chemical NPK fertilizers. These nitrogen fertilizers cause the soil microbes to consume heavy amounts of organic matter by tricking them. The issue with this? It depletes the soil, sometimes to a point that it will take years for that soil to regain its organic layer, microbes, minerals and micro-nutrients.
We 100% know that nitrogen inputs are important in crop and grass production to stimulate growth. However, there is a time and a place for everything. These types of inputs are not needed as often as most think. They should be managed and only used when necessary at specific times during the growth cycle of turf, a crop or plant. Soil amendments are a great way to ensure overall soil health over an extended period of time, especially if the user is growing produce. Produce ends up being consumed by humans and animals alike, therefore more thought needs to be given ahead of using heavy NPK chemical fertilizers. The saying, ‘from the farmer’s field to your table’ is something we should all be giving some more thought to.
Soil amendments or soil conditioners are products that improve the overall quality of the soil, its fertility, corrects soil pH and soil texture. They help repair soil and return it to the state nature intended it to be. These products tend to focus more on the full spectrum needs of the soil and do not have the high ratios that NPK fertilizers do. They are easier on the soil, its organic matter, the microbes living within the soil and the root systems of plants and crops you are growing within the soil itself.
Tying it all together
We have discussed a great deal of information pertaining to soil today. There is one clear thing to reflect on as we come to a close. Soil is the solution. Great soil = great results. Protecting our natural resources is a main focus of our world today and soil is at the root of most of these resources. Do what you can to protect our soil, even if it’s just the soil in your garden or beneath your lawn. We risk losing what topsoil we have left by the year 2080 if nothing changes and the world continues operating as it is. Soil is eroding at an unprecedented rate. Do your part for the eco-system, our planet, our future and most importantly to each and every one of us, including our families. Now you know why soil is so important.
World Soil Day is Saturday December 5th, 2020
For more information please visit The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.