Building Symbiotic Soils

hands-1838658_640Jill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz

As an organic gardener and biological farmer, there are certain things I have come to understand over the last 30 some-odd years. Working with seeds, soil, and sun have taught me about the symbiotic relationships that all living things share in common. It’s a simple concept with a profound potential to transform, and it all starts with the soil.

The thing about soil is that it isn’t just dirt or organic matter or minerals, it’s a complex medium that supports billions of living creatures. Or at least that’s what it’s supposed to do. Without the organisms that live in the soil, there would be no soil. Without the bacteria, fungi and a whole host of other micro-organisms that digest and enrich organic materials and converting them into the substances that plants can absorb through their roots, we could not grow the food we need to survive. Humans, and billions of other life forms on earth, are totally dependent on symbiotic relationships like this.

If you’ve ever read or seen Dr. Seuss’s famous Horton Hears a Who, you probably already know where I’m going with this notion of worlds within worlds. In this case, the unseen world is inhabited by microorganisms that make life on earth what it is.

With all the talk these days of the importance of gut flora, most people already understand that the human body is filled with microorganisms. Most are symbiotic, helping us digest our food and converting it to crucial nutrients for our bodies while cleaning up waste and destroying destructive pathogens. Today, people know that eating yogurt, Keiffer, and Greek yogurt helps to replenish beneficial bacteria in our guts so we can digest our food better and absorb more nutrients from the foods we eat.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that soil is a similar kind of microbiome in which hundreds, if not thousands, of microorganisms live in a symbiotic relationship with all the things that grow in it.  Indeed, one cannot exist without the other.  Dirt is just ground up minerals until something lives in it. And soil that is alive supports the continuance of life like bacteria, fungi, worms and grubs – an entire unseen universe of living things.

These life forms all work in concert to break down organic matter and turn them into nutrients that plants can absorb. In return, plants pump sugars into the soil that the microbes need to survive while also providing organic matter to feed and protect the biota in the soil.  This, in turn, produces more nutritious, productive, and disease resistant crops. It’s that circle of life thing on a nano scale.

For gardeners and ecological farmers, diverse soil life should always be the primary focus. Living soils not only enrich plant life but actually aerates the soil. Loose soil allows oxygen and water to reach deeper depths, reducing the need to water so much during periods of drought. Healthy soil also anchors plants better, which prevents lodging by allowing plant roots to dig deeper.  Good bacteria in the soil also act as an immune-booster to plants, helping them to resist both pests and diseases.

Even organic and ecological gardeners make the mistake of over-working the soil with powerful tillers that act much like a food processor which thoroughly destroys the carefully constructed settlements, travel routes, and food production systems of all types of soil biota.

How long do you imagine it takes for a single fungi to develop its incredibly delicate web of interconnected hyphae, or an earthworm to construct the long, complex tunnels it uses to grow fungi for its own nourishment? The thing we as ecological food producers need to understand is that we cannot continually destroy the intricate structure of our soil and expect to maintain any form of permanent agriculture.

Fungi break down wood and plant materials to feed the soil. Photo copyright: Jill HendersonHow then, do we build and protect resilient life-giving soil? The first and best way is to always have something growing year-round when possible. During winter, we should leave the roots of crops or cover crops in the soil where they will decompose and feed soil biota. The aerial plant parts should be allowed to blanket the surface of the soil to feed fungi, acts as a winter blanket to nurture hibernating creatures and keep soil in place. If you are starting out with hard clay and rocky soils then you may need to turn in organic matter for a few years to loosen the tilth so organisms can begin to take root. However, this phase should always be done with an eye for reestablishing both the macrobiotic ecosystem and the biota itself as quickly as possible.

Additionally, it is important to feed the soil biota to ensure their survival. Molasses is a good example of a natural carbohydrate source that keeps the life cycle energized. If needed, balanced pure rock minerals can be added with care. When not cropping food or forage, sow seed of cover crops like clover, buckwheat and winter rye. Garlic and onions are good dual-purpose cover crops with roots in the soil. The seeds and bulbs of these plants can withstand winter’s chill and are naturally strong survivors that will pop up in the spring before you are ready to sow seed. Anything that will come up quickly in the cold days of the early spring before sowing, or in late summer after each food crop is spent, is a good measure to support soil health.

Additionally, it is important to point out that just like in nature, diversity is key to the health of any living system, including soil. That’s why interplanting multiple-species cover and food crops within the same row or field will not only increase the diversity of foodstuff for soil biota, but for bees, beneficial insects, and even humans.

Garden crops are interplanted with cover crops such as buckwheat to increase diversity. Photo copyright Jill HendersonWhen it comes time to plant your garden, the cover crop can either be harvested or mowed down and used as mulch. Covers like buckwheat can be crimped (bent and knocked down but not killed) and allowed to naturally cover the soil surface to act as a living mulch. I also encourage you to experiment with sowing seed or transplanting seedlings directly into established covers. To do this, either knock down the cover crop or hoe out planting rows to give seedlings a little extra space and time to root up and attain some height. You don’t want your cover crops hogging all the sun, but a little shade and frost protection can sometimes be the ticket to a more successful planting.

Of course, these ideas are just a taste of how symbiotic soils work and how you can facilitate their growth. And while the premise of symbiotic relationships is a simple one, learning how to create and care for symbiotic soils is a journey of surprise and experimentation.  And just like Horton heard the Who, so must we recognize the roles that God’s tiniest creations play in our food system – even if we can’t see them with the naked eye.

Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
Gardening, foraging, herbs, homesteading, slow food, nature, and more!
© Jill Henderson

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Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz  Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons and Illuminati Agenda 21 can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author to Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.

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6 responses to “Building Symbiotic Soils

  1. Very interesting article, Jill, soil is very important component in the food. Nowadays it is destroyed, the companies use chemical fertilizers and pesticides instead of manure.
    I would like to wish a prosperous 2019 , health and happiness to you and your husband! Happy New Year!

  2. love the “fungi photo”.

    • Thanks, Mom! Taking pictures of mushrooms is one of my favorite pastimes. If I don’t know the species I can spend hours online trying to identify it correctly and it drives Dean crazy! 🙂

  3. Star writing Jill! I hadn’t heard of that Seuss story but it sounds pertinent to so much ~ ‘a person’s a person, no matter how small’. This seems like a good lead into an article on no-dig gardening from you? Writing to you soon. Much love, S

    • Thank you so much, Sara! So nice to hear from you! Yes, the Horton Hears a Who story is quite like that. A whole world of Whos living in a spec of dust and only Horton the Elephant can hear their cries for help… good stuff for kids and adults to ponder. You always read my mind and am looking forward to talking to you very soon, dear friend. xoxoxo

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