Chapter 8: Soils

Repairing soils healthy food web is something that articulates the ultimate empowering quote from Bill Mollison, “While the problems of world become increasingly complex, the solutions are embarrassingly simple”.  When we understand the principles of succession and how to advance it we can use both traditional methods and simplistic technology.  This allows us to propagate soil micro-organisms and provide the foods for their continual abundance.  Every person on planet earth can be a producer of soil not just a consumer.  We consume soil when we pay for unsustainably grown food or timber products.  We can build soil through various techniques but also shopping local from farmers that are farming with the patterns of nature can be just as powerful.  We all need to take a greater role, however, in cycling carbon whether its our direct waste or other waste streams such as food scraps and cardboard.  That is very easily accomplished with worm bins, or vermi-composting, systems.

Vermi-compost system at Terra Alta, Portugal for recycling carbon

The most important thing to understand about soil is that we as organic growers are not farmers of plant, we are herders of soil micro-organisms.  It is our great duty to shepherd the basic building blocks of soil, bacteria and fungi, so that the higher predators,

Nematode feeding under microscope: Photo Credit: Dr. Elaine Ingahm

nematodes, micro-arthopods and earthworms) can take part in the age old tradition of predator prey relationships.  These beneficial interactions produce plant available nutrients which create conditions for optimal photosynthesis to occur.  When the food web is strong, the plant are strong, which helps with pest and disease resistance.  When we eliminate the need for pesticides because we have used diversity we improve the hydrological cycle and bio-diversity flourishes above and below the soil surface.  As the plants build in complexity and diversity, they become carbon cyclers through root exudates, cakes and cookies delivered to the root zones MO’s, and also their carbon bodies.  The growth and decay process is a continual flux of energy mixing the energies of the sun’s light and heat with the earth’s minerals and nutrients and the force that connects them: water.  Water feeds and lubricates the paths of soil MO’s and is sweated out plants to help bring more rain.  Its stored extensively in the soil, in the plants and is all around us in varying states of composition.  There is no separation between soil/water/trees (perennial vegetation).

Hot composting- Maharishi university of Management, Iowa, USA 2011

The residues from plants or the animal wastes that come from feeding on our vegetation can be combined in layers to create one of the most powerful tools for accelerating succession which is hot composting.  This is a simple and sophisticated tool that requires attention to detail and continuous monitoring.  However when managed correctly we can use it to turn soils around quickly.

Soils are not just to be evaluated on permaculture sites solely for growing but also in the context of building and water management.  Evaluation occurs for materials which could be incorporated in natural building such as clay or sand deposits.  These can offset costs of materials such as timber and can be a great way to build community.  And to be honest since natural building is such hard work it reinforces the idea of building a smaller house and living simpler.  Buildings sites also need to be evaluated for the soils in which the foundation will lay and also how wastes will be disposed such as grey or blackwater.

Natural building soils from Treasure lake Cob Oven project, 2012: pure clays, pigment clays, sand and sub- soil all form the land went into this oven

Thus there are various ways to analyze soil and mitigate any conditions.  Soil is a precious resource and should be treated like it our own skin, protecting membrane for our survival.

The pattern of development is the following from Mollison:

  • Afforestation (Management of biodiversity)
  • Soil Conditioning (Mechanical)
  • Building Soil (Mulching + Composting)

And i would add stimulating the soil food web through various techniques like compost extract, bio-fertilizers, and chop and drop.  It pertains to the last one he mentions of building soil yet i think its important to reference the soil food web as we understand more about soil microbiology.  Feed and seed microorganism and abundance follows through their web of life that connects to other earthly cycles.

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