A handful of soil

I’m a day late, but what the hell? It’s a great cause, so I’m adding this post to many others for Save the Soils! blogger action day (in my case action day +1… well, what do you expect from a snail?).

When we moved into Chez Snail we didn’t have any soil…we had a thin layer of clay, a patio and a lawn. But where was our soil? Surely there must have been some over the land at some point in the past? The answer, of course, was that the soil had been stripped off the land when the house was built and, no doubt, had been sold (valuable stuff, top soil).

These ones were planted a bit later

Soil in our garden where there used to be none

So, we started making soil… we collected bags of moss raked out of friends’ lawns and sacks of leaves; we made compost from grass clippings and cardboard and kitchen scraps; we got chickens and used their soiled bedding; we built raised beds and primed them with some bought-in soil and them added any organic matter we could think of; we planted a willow hedge, chipped the prunings and incorporated these; we learned to compost dog poo safely ; we boosted nitrogen with urine; we shredded all our confidential waste and added this to the garden, we trained the neighbours to deliver their grass clipping to us… and fifteen years on we do have a productive plotĀ  that contributes significantly to our diet.

Amigurumi Escherichia coli

Bacteria are so important in soil… ok this is a crochet one, but I didn’t have a microscope to hand!

But soil is not just about organic matter – it also contains a mineral element (which varies according to the nature of your bedrock) and lots of living things – from those we can see (like earthworms) to microscopic bacteria, algae, cyanobacteria and fungi. And then there are the marvellous, magical mycorrhiza (also fungi)… mostly hidden from view, but bursting forth into our world when they produce their fruiting bodies – mushrooms and toadstools. And it’s these living things that make to soil the wonderful, productive and dynamic system that it is. Bacteria in the soil and in the roots of some plants can fix nitrogen from the atmosphere… converting it into forms that are available to other living things (like us). Micro-organisms break down dead stuff – plants and animals – converting their bodies into more soil and freeing the nutrients held within them. Without micro-organisms we’d be drowning in dead stuff!

The 'four sisters' bed

All that soil building really pays off

Living things participate in a great cycle of nutrient transfer and harvesting crops means we deplete the soil… hence the importance of putting organic matter back in through composting. Artificial fertilisers just don’t deliver the goods – they give a short-term boost, making micro-organisms go berserk, but leaving the soil depleted or imbalanced in the long term. Compost, on the other hand contains carbon and nitrogen in balance and so the soil micro-organisms get a balanced diet and continue to thrive. Not only that, but compost improves soil structure and enhances water retention… both key to productive plant growth. Plus, if you make compost, you are keeping material out of landfill and building up a bigger carbon store in your garden… every little helps when it comes to reducing our carbon emissions!

So building good soil is a win-win-win-win situation. Even if you only have a tiny back yard or a balcony, you can build a little area of good soil… and if you have no outdoor space, make sure your organic waste goes to a municipal composting facility, so it can boost soil building somewhere else. We can all do something to improve the soil that is the foundation of our lives… after all, without it we are not going to have much to eat!

P.S. In case you didn’t know, I’m an ecologist by training… I’m getting off my soapbox now

%d bloggers like this: