I spent last weekend at the Nevada County Sustainable Food and Farm Conference. One of the speaker highlights for me was the presentation given by Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb fame. This is the woman who has single-handedly put soil biology – as opposed to soil chemistry – front and center over the past decade. The January/February 2014 issue of Horticulture magazine has an article entitled “The Root of Good” that offers an excellent synopsis of Elaine’s work. The compost tea craze that started up in this county about 2 years ago is a direct result of Elaine’s work. I assume eco-farmers and gardeners around the country are experiencing a similar explosion of businesses making this microbiologically-rich tea available.
Even the most conscientious of organic growers often create biological monocultures in their soils through the practices of ploughing and tilling. Breaking up the soil like this creates an environment that strongly favors bacteria over the fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, and arthropods, all of which are essential to the effective cycling of those soil nutrients – all that nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium that we hear so much about. If we focus on the biology instead of the chemistry, we create an environment where nature can step in and do the necessary tweaking to get it all flowing.
Compost that is well-made, through processes that ensure good aeration, is essential to reintroducing the vast range of microbes to a soil that has leaned too heavily in one direction. It can be applied directly or used to make a tea that is then sprayed over the plants and soil. Mulching or perennial plant cover are essential strategies in maintaining good habitat and food resources for those fungi, once balance has been re-established. Minimizing the amount of tilling and the size of area that is tilled also helps to maintain a diverse soil ecosystem.
The advantages to focusing on your soil’s biology rather than its chemistry are great. The practices needed to maintain a healthy soil biology also conserve soil moisture (as California heads into a serious drought!), enhance plant health through the balanced nutrition that the microbes unlock, minimize pest damage because healthy plants have greater immunity, and create foods that are more nutritious for us.
The other big benefit lies in the connection. When we tend to the health and diversity of all biological beings, we tend to our selves at the deepest level. We acknowledge the power of the smallest creature to make a difference in our lives. We acknowledge our own power to make a difference in the lives of others.
Note: Click the link above on Elaine Ingham’s name to hear her on YouTube!