Our kids dig in it. Our plants grow from it. And I am forever trying to sweep it off my front porch. Dirt is that stuff that is smeared into our children’s faces and hands. Soil, on the other hand, is the dark, soft, crumbly stuff that is rich in organic, living matter. Our food and much of our shelter springs forth from soil, and whether it is vibrant and healthy or weak and degraded will depend on how we have cared for it. Not to wax poetic, but I think that building healthy soil is one of the most important things we can do for our environment and yet we rarely pay it much attention. That is until a big load of fragrant, rich mulch is delivered to our doorstep.
I have to admit that even as an avid backyard gardener, I rarely paid much attention to the dirt beneath my feet. Sure, I kept the weeds at bay and did my best to keep the soil loose and workable. I admired the worms and spread mulch around the yard once in a while. Later, as a mom I watched as my children stomped in it, built castles and moats in it and thoroughly enjoyed digging holes, building bug habitats and ‘making’ pies from the stuff.
But, until I took a required class within the landscape department, I did not understand the true majesty of soil. It is an interconnected web of material, minerals and organisms, each doing its part to sustain life. Too much sand and water will quickly drain away, leaving plants thirsty and weak. Too much clay and water will pond, creating an anaerobic condition where plants are not able to get the oxygen they need. But topsoil consisting of a mixture of sand, silt and clay will provide the perfect balance for plants to thrive. Certain fungi can bring disease to a towering tree. Other fungi will can help bind soil together, break down pollutants and actually help the same tree efficiently absorb water and other nutrients. Insects and rodents might be a pest to some, but their tunnel digging, poop laying nature benefits our soil in many ways.
Recently, my children have been experimenting with a ‘Future Farm’ kit. This kit allows children to experiment with hydroponic systems utilizing different growing media. One basin uses a sand base to grow seeds and the other basin allows a child to grow seeds in a manufactured soil blend. Each basin is fed by a capillary system delivering water and nutrients. I know you think I couldn’t possibly talk about arugula again… but here it is. My children planted tiny arugula seeds in each basin and sat back to watch them grow. I was amazed. Within four days the tiny seeds within this controlled environment ‘hatched’ and spread forth their tiny green leaves. I began to wonder if this was the future of farm production.
Much is said about the degradation of topsoil. It is estimated that the United States is losing TONS of topsoil every year. This loss comes about every time farmland is paved over for roads, subdivisions and any kind of development. While I am an advocate for smart growth and preserving our natural habitats and farmlands, this article isn’t focused on that discussion. With all the development creep our country sees every year, the primary reason we lose topsoil is due to erosion and poor farming practices. Creating topsoil occurs very slowly. It takes hundreds of years for natural organisms to create just an inch or two of topsoil. However, a heavy wind or a heavy rain can blow or wash degraded soil away in one storm. This means that it is takes ten times longer to build healthy topsoil than it is currently being eroded away. This rate of degradation can have devastating effects on, not only our country’s food production, but also the water quality of our rivers and our natural eco-systems.
There are effective solutions out there. And as homeowners, we can learn from the lessons our farming neighbors have experienced.
- One of the best things we can do for our soil is compost. Composting takes our natural wastes and quickly transforms them into a highly nutritious topping for our gardens. Applying a 2” layer of compost or even mulch around, not only your fruits and vegetables but all your trees and shrubs, will help prevent erosion, reduce the amount of water plants need and will add back critical elements to the soil.
- It is also important to consider the fertilizers we apply to our gardens. Synthetic fertilizers strip the soil of all the living organisms that are so vital to its natural creation. Instead, using organic or natural fertilizers not only protects and feeds your plant, but it also helps support the good bugs and living organisms within our soil.
- And thirdly, approaching the aesthetic of our garden in a slightly different manner will actually benefit our soil. Leaving behind the leaf litter, grass clippings and faded perennial flower stalks will not only help hold the soil in place, but they will add nutrients back to the soil and provide food and shelter for the creatures in our gardens. This garden might not be as tidy as one that has been stripped of its debris, but it will be a lot happier and a whole lot healthier.
There aren’t many things that are less sexy to talk about than dirt. But there are only a few things that are more vitally important to our lives than healthy topsoil.