Stay tuned. After the following rant, I will answer these questions:
- How does healthy soil make our food more nutritious?
- What happens when soil is left bare?
- Are you turning your garden into a desert?
- How do I make my garden soil healthier?
- If I’m not a microbiologist, how will I ever understand what’s going on under the surface of my garden?
And now, for a short rant.
You plow, you plant, you harvest, you’re all good right? Actually, this traditional method of growing is destroying your soil! And not just your soil, but all the gardens and farm fields worldwide. Ever heard of desertification? Like fertile land turning to dust? Yup, that’s what happens. You may have even noticed your garden soil degrading over the years of repeated tilling, causing plants to grow poorer each year.
Wait, what? You mean, the way that almost everyone on this planet grows food is hurting the earth and destroying our soil? How do people not know this?
Today, scientists, regenerative farmers, and activists are trying to get the word out that modern agriculture is the largest contributor to climate change and loss of nutrition in our food.
In fact, most of our farmland grows corn, hay and soybeans intended for livestock in feedlots. While the animals are releasing massive amounts of greenhouse gasses in confinement, farmers are plowing and sending even more carbon into earth’s atmosphere. All this carbon is responsible for global temperature shifts and increasing numbers of natural disasters.
Yes, you heard me right, global warming and irregular weather patterns are directly linked to plowing, bare soil and animal agriculture. Wow, that sounds like a big deal! (Check out the NASA data here).
It is a well researched fact that mono-cropping and plowing are detrimental to soil health. (Anyone remember the dust bowl?) So why do we do it? For the same reason we’re still making plastic, dumping trash instead of recycling, and pouring pollution into the atmosphere. Because it’s cheaper and easier! At least in the short term. But the price we will pay to correct the fallout from these choices will carry a much steeper price tag in the long run. Scientists predict that we only have about 60 years left before our topsoil is completely destroyed. (According to the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organization)
Ok, so now you’re freaking out! But what can you do? You’re only one person right? Start by educating yourself and then the people in your circle. Think about what products you are buying as a consumer. Are you helping fund destructive agricultural practices or are you supporting the organic farmers and ranchers that are doing things right?
Is my environmentalism starting to show? End rant.
Check out the amazing documentary Kiss the Ground to learn more about this crisis! (Seriously, just watch it.)
What’s going on under the surface of my garden?
Soil is full of life! In fact, there is an entire ecosystem under our feet that is directly responsible for all life above the surface. The soil food web contributes to the nutrient content of the soil which is taken in by plant roots. These nutrients are then passed from plant to herbivore and herbivore to predator. Therefore, all the nutrition we receive as humans depends upon the health of soil ecosystems.
Soil nutrients are categorized as either macro-nutrients or micro-nutrients. As you may have guessed, the macro-nutrients are the most important and most plentiful.
- Macro-Nutrients (Primary): Nitrogen, Phosphorus, Potassium
- Micro-Nutrients (Secondary): Calcium, Magnesium, Sulfur
- Micro-Nutrients (Trace Minerals): Iron, Boron, Chlorine, Manganese, Zinc, Copper, Nickel, Molybdenum
- We also have Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen which plants receive from water and air.
Beneath the soil’s surface, insects work at aerating the soil and decomposing plant material. Soil structure is maintained, benefitting vegetation. If you zoom in to the microscopic level, things really get busy. Microorganisms (bacteria, fungi, nematodes) are working to release all those nutrients we talked about from decaying organic matter in the soil, making it available to plants.
Do you know what happens when you plow or disturb the soil? All those incredible microorganisms and insects are destroyed and the natural processes which improve soil health cease. When we till the soil, we are destroying our own health!
What happens when soil is left bare?
Plants sequester carbon from the atmosphere into the soil. Tilling releases that stored carbon, which, in large scale, causes the earth to increase in temperature. Weather patterns shift and we see a rise in forest fires, droughts, floods and violent storms.
When we leave soil bare . . .
- Moisture evaporates
- Nutrients are lost through tilling
- Microorganisms can’t survive
- Carbon is released into earth’s atmosphere
- Fertile land turns to desert
- Erosion of topsoil is caused by water runoff
- Violent weather ensues
- Crops have less access to nutrients so they become less vigorous and loose nutritional value
- Pesticides and fertilizers are often sprayed to correct problems which negatively impacts human health
When soil is covered by vegetation . . .
- Moisture is captured
- Nutrients continue to cycle in soil
- Microorganisms decompose plant material
- Plants draw down carbon and trap it in the soil
- Over time soil health improves and causes increased yields
- Transpiration contributes to regional water cycles
- A network of living and decaying plant roots trap and store water
- Plants have access to more nutrients that are then passed on to the consumer
- Natural predators of pest insects are part of the ecosystem with bio-diversity
Are you turning your garden into a desert?
Healthy soil begets healthy vegetation and robust vegetation is the key which unlocks the water cycle. I don’t really remember them teaching this part in school (as I am now teaching it to my 2nd grader). They show diagrams of water evaporating up into clouds and raining back down, either soaking in to the soil or running downhill until it links up with some body of water. But the part about transpiration often gets lost.
Transpiration is an essential part of the water cycle that keeps the whole system working. Transpiration occurs when water in the soil is absorbed by a plants roots. The water travels up the plant’s xylem and then into individual cells before evaporating back into the atmosphere. Think of it like plant sweat! They use a small portion of water they take in for growth and the rest rejoins the water cycle and creates humidity in the air.
So, plants keep the water cycle going as it crosses the continent. Areas that are left with bare soil (think large farm fields) are not able to contribute to the water cycle through transpiration. If this happens on a large scale, the earth responds in a drastic and frightening way. This is why places that are devoid of lush greenery are very dry, hot and well, deserts.
How does healthy soil make our food more nutritious?
This is the part that really benefits us. Our health is determined by what we eat. Our plant’s health is determined by what the plant eats (soil nutrients). Therefore, humans are only as healthy as the ground our food was grown in.
Healthy soil contributes to the color, scent and flavor of the fruits and vegetables it bears. Healthier plants give us higher amounts of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants. When we get more calcium, iron, protein, carbohydrates, fiber, vitamin B12, Vitamin D and all those other amazing nutrients from our plant food, our bodies reward us with lifelong benefits.
Obtaining this necessary nutrition from plants can boost immunity, improve cognitive function, promote healthy gut bacteria, and reduce the risk for many diseases. In fact, before this modern age of convenience foods and modern medicine, doctors and herbalists would prescribe certain fruits, vegetables, flowers and herbs as remedies. The healing power of plants is real and the soil plays a huge role in giving produce it’s power.
How do I make my garden soil healthier?
Regenerative agricultural practices can and will fix earth’s soil and regional water cycles.
There are so many different ways to begin building your soil in a way that benefits both your garden and the environment. Careful design and planning are crucial to success. In fact, there are so many methods to regenerate soil, I have dedicated an entire post to the subject. To get an in depth look at these techniques, check out Building a Climate Victory Garden to Regenerate Soil (release date 3/5/2021).
- No till methods for planting
- Cover crops or perennials for no bare soil
- Create bio-diversity and practice companion planting
- Crop and pasture rotation
- Compost to increase soil microbial diversity
- Silvopasture, agroforestry and permaculture practices
- Organic pest control solutions over chemical additives
- Direct water where it’s needed
- Welcome wildlife to your ecosystem
Let’s fix this!
And this is how we solve the bare soil dilemma. Stop tilling and start building. If you do one thing this year, let it be to grow food and support local regenerative agriculture! In his book “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” Paul Hawkin details comprehensive carbon reduction solutions for ordinary people like you and me.
You don’t need to own hundreds of acres of farmland to make a difference. Just grow what you can where you can.
Don’t forget to read Building A Victory Garden to Regenerate Soil (release date 3/5/2021) to learn techniques to develop your soil into a nutrient dense plant sanctuary while combating climate change!