Our mission is to share the wonders of the natural world by publishing books from experts in the fields of gardening, horticulture, and natural history. Grow with us.

Why soils matter: Our authors weigh in

by Timber Press on July 21, 2015

in Gardening

2015 is the International Year of Soils, the purpose of which is to raise awareness of the importance of soils. In this spirit, several of our authors share what they find most impressive about soils and why that matters.

Christopher Shein
The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture
Soil is the foundation for community, our culture, and the web of life. Soil is many things: a thin layer covering the planet earth, where animals die and return to the earth; where parent rocks are broken down by water and weather, a mysterious place where new species of bacteria and other soil microorganisms are being discovered everyday. And more. Since Columbus’ contact and European plough agriculture came to North America, nearly 75% of the topsoil has been lost; Witness the Great Dust Bowl of the 1930s and Google earth images of the Mississippi River silting the Gulf of Mexico. Without soil we will not have life.

Cleo Woelfle-Erskine
Creating Rain Gardens
This may be a little tangential, but one thing that I’ve been very fascinated with by lately is how soil and specifically soil microbes affect water passing through the soil. Depending on the source of carbon (needles, leaves, grasses, logs) and the soil parent material, microbes produce different species of carbon molecules, which fluoresce at different wavelengths. The mixtures of different carbon molecules are fingerprints for different water and sediment sources to streams. I’m using it to understand which aquifers contribute most to late-summer streamflow. Then, residents ( and gardeners!) that tap into those aquifers could be encouraged to install cisterns and rain gardens to cut back on how much they pump out during the summer months. The hope is that this would allow more water to flow to the streamflow and increase late-summer survival of juvenile salmon.

Mushrooms can be grown in and around plants to help turn carbon sources such as woodchips into nutrients that plants can use. (Image: Augustus Jenkins Farmer)

Mushrooms can be grown in and around plants to help turn carbon sources such as woodchips into nutrients that plants can use. (Image from Deep-Rooted Wisdom)

Dave Boehnlein
Practical Permaculture
Think you’ve got lousy soils? Check this out!

Our soils are very much alive and there in would seem to lie a key to fertility. I learned recently during a lecture by soil scientist Elaine Ingham that even in soils deficient in nutrients, supporting the microorganisms that live there can allow nutrients to migrate into the system. When one applies an aerobic compost or compost tea (also aerobic), they add millions of beneficial microorganisms to the soil (mostly bacteria and fungi). The plants in the soil will provide sugars and proteins to the bacteria and fungi to help them get established. Having fungi and bacteria will provide food for higher predators living in the soil. Those predators will come when there is an abundance of food and they will excrete many nutrients that may not have been there before. It’s like having a tiny herd of millions of critters adding their micro-manure to your soils! Even better, in that analogy, the farmers are actually the plant making sure they have a good healthy crop of microorganisms! That means providing a basic compliment of microorganisms (through aerobic compost) can kick start soil fertility even in absence of nutrients. Mind officially blown!

Jeff Lowenfels
Teaming with Nutrients, Teaming with Microbes
My wife keeps telling me to stop correcting folks when they use the term “dirt” to mean soil. I can’t help it. Soil is just too important. Dirt is the duff found under the bed or in the corners of the kitchen’s unmopped floor. Soil is not dirt. Soil is alive with up to a whopping 80% of its biomass belonging to microbes. Soil is full of bacteria, fungi, nematodes and protozoa. The best thing is that while dirt needs to be cleaned up, soil you can allow to accumulate.

Jessi Bloom
Practical Permaculture, Free-Range Chicken Gardens
I like to emphasize that soil is ALIVE. Millions of organisms live in healthy soils which all play different roles and have different jobs to help keep plants healthy and cycle nutrients. As gardeners we need to tend to the life in the soil for a healthy garden and ecosystem!

Jim Fox
How to Buy the Right Plants, Tools & Garden Supplies

  • Rarely is there a soil that won’t grow a plant of beauty or interest.
  • The smell of freshly turned soil always reminds me of forests, grasslands, and a faint odor of heat.
  • It’s not a lot of hard work to improve or change a soil: just leave any fallen organic matter on the soil to decompose at its own rate.
  • It’s so easy to change a soil just by laying a couple of inches of compost or organic mulches over it every year or so. Worms, birds, bugs, and microbes do the hard work of mixing it together. I just wait, then plant, and take all the credit.
  • It’s still a miracle to me that decent, worked up, native soils can usually take in a piece of potato, absorb water and heat through the summer, and give back six to ten nice sized spuds in the fall.
Leave the hard work of soil creation and optimization to others, such as this earthworm, which will break down organic matter from above and deposit fertilizer below. (Image: S. Shepherd)

Leave the hard work of soil formation to others, such as this earthworm, which will break down organic matter and deposit it as fertilizer. Voilà! (Image: S. Shepherd)

Lee Reich
Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden
Not tilling a soil—ever!—offers many benefits, not the least of which is less weeds. Buried within every soil is a well-stocked “bank” of weed seeds. These seeds stay dormant, many of them just waiting to be exposed to light before they can germinate, which happens when a soil is tilled. Not all of them germinate at once, of course. Some wait for the next exposure, or the next, all of which makes for a very good and very bothersome weed. The USDA has approached this problem, with good results, by researching benefits of tilling at night. But greater emphasis is placed on “no-till,” which is very effective in a home garden also and keeps many weed seeds dormant. Eventually, those seeds die from age, action of microbes and pathogens, or consumption by ants, crickets, or other soil invertebrates.

Leo Chance
Cacti and Succulents for Cold Climates
Soils matter to gardeners because they are a determining factor in our success or failure. I am gardening with succulent plants. which means I need the soil to drain quickly. Soils that stay wet on the surface for any amount of will cause the plants I am growing to rot. A vegetable gardener would fail to have crops in my soil. Your soil is as important as sun exposure, horticultural zone, or the amount of rain that your garden receives. For plants to function properly their roots have to be healthy, soil that is not right for the type of plants you are growing will not allow the root system to expand in a vigorous manner. Soil PH can be important to most types of plant-life. The nutrients and trace elements available to plants factors into their overall performance.

Lorene Edwards Forkner
Handmade Garden Projects, The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Pacific Northwest
Just plain dirt or the foundation of a healthy planet? This lively mix of mostly unseen animals, vegetables, and minerals we so casually wipe from our feet, scrub from our food, and plow in fields might just be a magic bullet for our troubled environment.

Healthy, living soil rich in organic matter acts like a sponge to temper the effects of both drought and deluge. It provides nutrient-dense food that actually feeds us; consider how that might impact the obesity epidemic, chronic health problems, and rising medical costs. Scientists are exploring how soil can act as a natural and cost-effective solution to rising carbon emissions—carbon in the soil actually boosts soil fertility. And studies in West Africa have demonstrated ways to accelerate topsoil formation using managed herds of grazing animals and growing pits that capture water and organic matter in a dry climate, assisted by worms, insects and a diversity of soil life.

Imagine being freed from geological time.

Marie Iannotti
The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Heirloom Vegetables, The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Northeast
As someone who always seems to have soil somewhere on my person, the most interesting soil fact I’ve heard in awhile is that soil can act as an anti-depressant. Mycobacterium vaccae, a bacteria in soil helps boost your mood by triggering the neurons in your brain that release serotonin. It acts a lot like Prozac.

While several studies on mice and human cancer patients were done by injecting a serum with M. vaccae in it, the good news for gardeners, or anyone who likes to play in the dirt, is that in another study by a neuroscientist at the University of Bristol in England, he concluded that all we need to do is inhale some M. vaccae to get the mood boosting affect, which is hard not to do if you spend any time outdoors sliding into home base or pulling weeds. “You can also ingest mycobacteria either through water sources or through eating plants—lettuce that you pick from the garden, or carrots.”[1]

Soils make possible such amazing life forms as the Pando clone along Utah's Scenic Byway U-25. (Image: J. Zapell)

Soils make possible such amazing life forms as the Pando clone along Utah’s Scenic Byway U-25. (Image: J. Zapell)

Mary Ann Newcomer
The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Mountain States
Soil: so much more than dirt. Without it, we’d be nothing.

Two of its coolest claims: supporting the Pando in Utah, one of the world’s largest living organisms: a grove of 47,000 aspen trees (a single mass) and 100 acres. And, since we like to do things big in the West, there’s a Humongous Fungus, the world’s largest known fungus, in Malhuer County Oregon. It covers three square miles. How’s that for a supporting role. I dig dirt!

Teri Dunn Chace
The Anxious Gardener’s Book of Answers, How to Eradicate Invasive Plants, Seeing Flowers, Seeing Seeds
Well, my favorite quote about soil comes from Roger B. Swain, who famously answered the spring-planting question “when can I put in the plants?” with something along the lines of “When YOU feel comfortable lying down on the ground, so will they!” I’d have to dig around—ouch, unintentional pun, I swear!—to find his exact words. But, so true.

As for my own thoughts on soil, here are two off-the-cuff ones, perhaps not very original:

  • It’s generally easy to talk about bad soil, what it is, what has contaminated it or contributes to its poor quality but defining good soil is much less precise! Excavate your new flowerbed to a depth of 6–8″ and fill it with good, well-draining garden loam. Install raised beds and fill them with good, well-draining garden loam. What is this mythical substance, good, well-draining garden loam? Where can I buy it?!
  • When I was just getting into flower gardening, I was digging new holes out front to add a few new plants, and I kept finding little blue flakes in it. Ewww. What IS this stuff? Turned out it was remnants of Miracle Gro. That cured me of ever using that stuff in the ground again (I do use it in pots and windowboxes, every now and then). I take seriously my responsibility to leave soil better than I found it. I don’t care if the little blue flakes contain beneficial nutrients, blue-flecked soil is just wrong to me.
Poop or Prozac? The bacteria in this cow's manure may actually help gardeners stay happy. (Image: Keith Weller/USDA)

Poop or Prozac? The bacteria in this cow’s manure may actually help gardeners stay happy. (Image: Keith Weller/USDA)

Tom Fischer
Perennial Companions
It’s safe to say that gardeners have an intimate relationship with soil. Which turns out to be a good thing, because frequent exposure to the microorganisms that live in it—up to 4 billion creatures in a single square inch—might just play an important role in keeping you healthy. One organism in particular, a common, non-pathogenic bacterium called Mycobacterium vaccae, stimulates your brain to produce more serotonin, thereby improving your learning skills and helping to reduce stress and anxiety. Maybe that’s why gardeners tend to be such cheerful, optimistic types!

Trisha Shirey
Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest
Phobias about bacteria, fungi and other organisms are rampant in our modern world but these are essential elements in our soils. Plants are assisted in their assimilation of nutrients by abundant soil microbes (50 billion microbes in 1 tablespoon of healthy soil!). Through the process of mineralization, microbes break down organic matter into humus, then humic acid, then into basic elements that are available to plants. Some microbes, like micorrhizal fungi, actually extend the length and surface area of plant’s root systems, resulting in healthier plants.

The use of chemical herbicides, fungicides, and fertilizers leaves salt residues in the soil which are toxic to soil microbes. Without a healthy microorganism population, plants become dependent on the regular addition of chemical fertilizer to sustain growth. The vast numbers of microbes in rich compost assist plants in assimilating the nutrients that they need to thrive. When it comes to organic gardening, we really are growing microbes first!

__________

To learn more about the International Year of Soils, click on image below.

yis-2015-banner

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Leo Chance July 22, 2015 at 10:18 am

Soils matter to gardeners because they are a determining factor in our success or failure. I am gardening with succulent plants. which means I need the soil to drain quickly. Soils that stay wet on the surface for any amount of will cause the plants I am growing to rot. A vegetable gardener would fail to have crops in my soil. Your soil is as important as sun exposure, horticultural zone, or the amount of rain that your garden receives. For plants to function properly their roots have to be healthy, soil that is not right for the type of plants you are growing will not allow the root system to expand in a vigorous manner. Soil PH can be important to most types of plant-life. The nutrients and trace elements available to plants factors into their overall performance.

2 Brian Ridder July 23, 2015 at 10:19 am

Thanks for the comment, Leo! I’m going to paste it into the body of the post if that’s alright?

3 Lorene Edwards Forkner July 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Yay Timber! Thanks so much for showing soil the respect it deserves and fostering this lively exchange. Everyone—go outside and get dirty

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: