Healthy Soil Ecology 101
When you reach down into the ground and pull up a handful of dark brown, almost black, moist, wiggling worm filled soil, that smells like the first days of Spring, you know, at that moment, what healthy soil looks like!
Much of our modern day garden, park, curbside-bed soil does not look anything like that. It tends to be greyish, dusty, dry, void of life and yet, we still expect plants to grow strong and healthy living in such conditions. The health of the soil ecology that a plant lives and grows in, will always be the most influential component to the overall health and prosperity of your garden.
What makes healthy soil?
There are two major components that determine healthy soil ecology: The Chemistry of the Soil, and The Biology of the Soil.
The Chemistry of the Soil
First let’s start with a well known concept from the realm of chemistry known as the Law of the Conservation of Mass. The law states that in an isolated system, mass is neither created nor destroyed. Meaning that the atoms used to create the entities in that isolated system can change, rearrange, build up, fall apart and rebuild, and yet still the atoms that started within the isolated system all still exist. Nothing leaves that system, everything is recycled.
Think of how a forest functions. Every year plant matter grows being built from the atoms the roots suck out of the soil, and the atoms the plant breaths in through leaves. The genetics of the plants provide blueprints of how to incorporate the material being shipped into the plant from the soil and air. The main goal of every plant each season is to grow, bloom, pass on genetics and then store enough resources in the root system for the winter. Plants that grow in tropical or warmer climates face periods of drought that function similarly as winter does in the temperate climates. These are periods of resource availability stress that plants, if healthy, can prepare for. Plants are quite brilliant!
When fall hits the Northeast and the leaves turn golden orange, the trees have turned off their green sugar making factories in the leaves, and the energy of the tree or plant focuses on putting the sugar as storage in the roots. The leaves fall off the trees, covering the ground in a thick warm blanket that helps protect the life living in the soil from drying out or freezing. The leaves insulate the ground, preventing as much water and heat from transpiring out of the soil and into the air. By maintaining moisture and warmth in the soil throughout the winter, the root systems of the plants experience less stress, the beneficial bacteria and fungus populations continue to live and operate protecting and feeding the plant, and there is a shorter bounce back time in the Spring, because the system never completely stopped or died off.
The leaves that the tree put so much energy into making have fallen to the ground and while protecting the soil life, are also a major food source for a class of soil friends known as decomposers. Decomposers come in the form of bacteria, fungi, worms, and insects. They fed off of the plant debri and transform the atoms that once made the leaves into their own physical manifestation and excrete excess atoms back into the soil for the tree to once again access and build into leaves for the next year. Forest and natural habitats around the earth have functioned in this way for billions of years. Efficiently recycling atoms to ensure the existence of each species of life found within an ecosystem.
Our modern garden, farm or curbside bed of soil is not an isolated system. There is great amount of input and export that happens even in the weedy abandoned plot of urban sprawl. The input of manufactured chemicals, and the constant removal of dying debri, ruins the soil ecology and stresses the plants that are desperately trying to survive in the conditions they were planted in. Stressed, dysfunction soil ecology and plants are prone to being invaded by weeds, who love growing in the worst soil. The garden aphid, Japanese beetle and caterpillars are all decomposer insects who feed off of plant tissues that their antennas are reading as weak and safe to eat. Strong healthy plants who live in healthy soil systems build strong immune systems that help defend themselves against predatory insects and pathogens. Healthy soil systems that have ecologically designed gardens are prone to fewer invasions of weeds because the soil conditions are not favorable to weeds and the desired plants are able to grow, occupying more real estate, shading out the opportunistic weed.
So, if the right ingredients (atoms) are not in the soil system, the plant cannot grow into its genetic potential, leaving it vulnerable to disease and ultimately death. But just having the right ingredients in the soil is not enough. This has been the biggest mistake and misunderstand of land care and plant care companies that design products to feed plants for a day, while never teaching that plant to fish for itself.
The Biology of the Soil
The second component crucial to a healthy soil ecology is the biology of the soil. Who is living in your soil and are they beneficial members of this community? An ecosystem is defined as “a biological community of interacting organisms and their physical environment”, when you ask Google. Lots of green industry people love throwing the “Eco”, “Ecologically Responsible”, “Eco-Friendly”, terms out there and very few actually use the term correctly. An ecosystem is a delicately balanced ordeal, that when humans put in and take out of, can throw the whole thing out of whack. The physical environment that the organisms are interacting with, can be generalized in the case of the soil as the chemistry, all those atoms. The different species of organisms coexisting amongst the atoms have important roles to play in the functioning of the entire system.
Bacteria and Fungi are the most important soil community members, but they each come in two varieties, the Protectors and the Destroyers. The protectors are species of bacteria and fungi that live around the root system. The beneficial bacteria and fungi species have a symbiotic relationship with the plant. The plant feeds the bacteria and fungus delicious sugar, and the fungus and bacteria protect the roots from the destroyers. The destroyers are species of bacteria and fungi that want to eat all the plants, conquering the whole garden with their greed and hunger. They don’t die off until they run out of food. Without the Protectors, every plant in the garden is vulnerable to the destroyers. The Protectors also have the magic power of being able to transform molecules of plant nutrients into water soluble forms that the plant can take up through the root system. Some species of Protectors even penetrate the cellular walls of the roots to transport nutrients into the plant. Without the Protectors plants lack a defense system around their most vulnerable physiological system, and suffer from adequate nutrition, making their physical composition weak and attractive to being massacred by another member of the garden community.
First a few words on the soil critters!
This blog will be a source of insight and understanding of how to develop healthy soil ecology. It will include practices and tools to help you restore the health of your garden. I will also review products on the commercial market, aka at your local Home Depot, and some that are worth ordering. When your garden is functioning on a level of sustainability, it will reduce your need for expensive inputs and plant replacement. Your garden will grow into a lush landscape of color, blooming all season long while you sit back enjoy the view and remember you are helping save the beautiful planet, Earth, too!
Some of my posts may be experiments for alternative methods to dealing with chronic garden problems or ecological frustrations. I have seen evidence of success in the scientific theories for alternative garden management, but every environment is different and takes a level of creative adaptability to make a design work. Many of the experiments will be based out of my parent’s backyard in Cambridge, Ma. It has been an interesting test subject. A great many challenges come to a small urban backyard that once was an asphalt parking lot of a chinese food restaurant. With maybe a $300 dollar budget a year, we have transformed what was saud and a young cherry tree into an ever evolving ecosystem. This year, I plan to upgrade the style and functionality of the tiny space, while enhancing the ecosystem of garden.
My experiments and design style come from a variety of artistic expression, my formal education in biology and from my extensive life detours that have brought me in contact with brilliant alternative thinkers. My understanding of the makings of healthy soil ecology and the results it has on plants comes primarily from my internship in biological farming practices and my three years work of being a fine gardener for five different companies in the Greater Boston area. Yes, I have done a bit of jumping around, but it has always been in search of people who are caring for the land differently and to learn from their wise experiences.
I hope I am able to inspire and open the realm of thinking within you, Dear Reader. I hope you will share your experiences and insights with me. Our earth is changing in many ways. The awareness and consciousness of the people has expanded so far in the past just 16 years. Our technology has enable us to connect at speeds beyond belief, from anywhere. With climate change, and the physical changing of landscapes, we need to find ways to maintain a healthy balance within the ecosystem and put energy not into fixing but into restoring. Fixes are band aids, temporary coverage, but restoration requires a deeper relationship with the problem and greater understanding of the needs to heal the wound.