Soil biology is quickly becoming my favourite subject to contemplate, read, talk and write about. Soil health, as an agent of change, resides at the base (no pun intended) of much of what is right and wrong with human and environmental health, and its fortification could change everything for the better.
Soil could literally, as celebrated author Kristin Ohlson writes “save us”.
I have been reading and reading — podcasting, researching, experimenting and writing about food gardening, nutrient density, biodynamics, climate change, historical land use, food related social systems, and the history of organic gardening — and the deeper I dig (again, no pun intended) the more I come to realize that the so-called ‘soilution’ is really just that.
Fix soil health everywhere, inasmuch as we are individually and collectively able, and we can make a big green and beautiful dent in the inextricably linked food insecurity, chronic disease, water insecurity, desertification, famine, global warming, global conflict, refugee, and associated crises.
Take a deep dive into any of these subjects, and you will discover the dirty truth about soil. Inasmuch as soil degradation is woven into the long forgotten roots of contemporary ills, soil itself is surprisingly forgiving and extraordinarily resilient.
Healthy, living soil represents a microscopic magical kingdom all of its own. There are more soil microorganisms in just one teaspoon of healthy soil than there are people on earth. Millions of species and billions and billions of microorganisms — algae, bacteria, insects, nematodes, worms, beetles, ants, mites, fungi and more, live 'in community' in healthy soil — representing the greatest concentration of biomass anywhere on the planet.
Not very long ago, before non-indigenous populations upset the natural balance of things, earth was an extraordinarily lush and fertile planet. I am confident — hopeful at least — that, if we knew then what we know now, we would not have unintentionally (then later, intentionally) disrespected the soil that feeds us by tiling, mono-cropping, clear-cutting, slash and burning, over-hunting, over-irrigating, industrial farming, tilling, and synthetic fertilizing our way to the brink.
The very good news is that we know what we did wrong, and we can absolutely change our ways. All of us. All we need is the will.
While politics and election cycle-driven national policies will likely not allow meaningful change anytime soon — certainly not soon enough — it is helpful and sobering to realize that we can. You can, and I can. We have the power. Our friends and neighbours, and everyone in our personal, professional and social spheres of influence can in fact make meaningful and lasting change.
We can and should believe the revelations broadcast via epic documentaries like Kiss The Ground, narrated by Woody Harrelson; A Life On Our Planet, David Attenborough’s witness statement; Chasing Ice; The Biggest Little Farm; Changing Paradigms | Regenerative Agriculture, and many other hopeful narratives that use simple and well-documented facts to illustrate how we ended up where we are, and what we are capable of doing immediately, individually and collectively, to improve things.
I recommend that we not dwell on the CO2 spewing, diversionary arguments of those who wish to detract us from the empowering truth, and that we just get on with it, each of us, and quickly.
An ‘aha’ moment for me happened recently. I was listening to a Podcast created for regenerative farmers, I believe it was one of John Kempf’s Regenerative Agriculture Podcast posts, and when the guest was asked what he believed to be true that most people don’t believe to be true, he replied in these words more-or-less, "that insects (both above and below ground) won’t eat healthy plants”.
Suddenly, all of the ‘too much and very complicated’ soil food web information that I had been reading and listening to fell into place — hard, with a heartwarming, reassuring, validating ‘thump’. I was so wound up in trying to understand what I didn’t know and couldn’t see in and around soil, insect and microbe behaviour and habitat, that I forgot the most basic of basic ideals — the so-called ‘law of the jungle’.
Like many of you, I grew up watching National Geographic specials, horrified by but accepting the images of predators attacking and consuming weak and wounded prey, leaving the strongest and often biggest to survive and reproduce. Of course it would be no different within the invisible to the naked eye world of insect and soil microbiology's (predators) natural selection of plants (prey) … aha!
Entomologists (insect scientists) are learning all sorts of fascinating truths about how sick and dying plants, fungi and microbiology send visual, sensory, electronic, even chemical signals to specific and general predator insects and microbes, to ‘come for dinner’, so to speak. These signals are akin to the physical weaknesses that predator mammals see and sense in their prey. We can’t witness these largely invisible and complex processes, but indeed they exist.
Non-interference in the laws of the jungle as it applies to all of life’s kingdoms in all ecosystems on land, in water and in the air, is the only thing that upholds the planet’s natural balance. Knowing this, and trusting this to be true, helps us understand that living soil — soil that is alive with all of the goodness that we need to grow extraordinarily beautiful, healthy, delicious, nutrient-dense food — is what we must focus on at all levels of decision-making as we live our busy lives.
Applying pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, nematicides and other synthetic controls, kill important biology above and beyond what they are intended to (as if that isn't bad enough). They upset the natural, invisible balance of predator and prey in and around soils, and create a feedback loop of destruction from which there is no return — unless it stops.
The only solution to problems caused by these synthetics is to eliminate them entirely, and then start again slowly, as nature intended. Of course there are layers and layers more to it (to be explained by those more learned than I), but that's the believable gist of it.
I for one, am committed to creating as much organically based natural habitat as I can, in and around our urban gardens, to attract a healthy ecosystem in which my dedicated food gardens can thrive. I will accept some collateral damage as proof that the gardens are happy and healthy, and I will learn from wholesale damage inflicted by soil-borne or insect pests that there is a temporary, fixable weakness somewhere in the ecosystem.
I do not and will not introduce any element, fertilizer or synthetic influence that will deliberately or indiscriminately kill anything in and around our gardens, and I will continue to build, from the below the ground, up, a healthy, well-balanced ecosystem in which the law of the jungle prevails.
If we all do this simple thing that requires no cost-prohibitive inputs or mediations, the billions of us without political or economic power, and without any specialized knowledge, can indeed do what our national governments are not doing.
“You, as a food buyer, have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit"
What can you do?
Feed your soil organically if possible, and with compost. At the very least do no harm.
Feed the farmers, market gardeners and organic grocers who are feeding our soil. That is, spend a bit more for their much superior offerings.
Feed you soul by voting with your wallets, your loyalty, and the required extra effort and/or compromise that it takes to choose wisely, healthfully and impactfully.
Feed your mind with hopeful and authentic content rather than doom and gloom distraction. The FREE streaming platform Waterbear is dedicated to the future of our plants, and offers excellent un-polluted content in small and big bites; using storytelling as a tool to make a difference.
Feed your body with as much whole and unadulterated food as you are able. Stay out of grocery store aisles, and instead shop the fresh-food perimeter. Industrial agriculture will respond to a values shift in consumer demand for higher quality foods.
Feed yourself and your family by growing food at home in whatever space you have outdoors or indoors, or both.
Feed your community by passing along positivity, and sharing what you know.
We can win this!
On that hopeful note, I am happy to share what my family is working on currently with soils, in and around our urban permaculture gardens:
Spring has arrived, meteorologically speaking. Time, I suppose, to start sowing seeds like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants indoors. If you are growing herbs and flowers from seed, best get going on those as well.
I wrote extensively last spring, about early greens, and also about growing peas, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and root vegetables. I wrote too, about the process of hardening off. If you are at all curious about what works best for us, visit those posts or drop me a line.
We are seed starting a bit late this year; in part because I was waiting for my biochar to ‘bloom’, but primarily due to elevation. We are located just above the ‘snow day’ snowline, so our garden soil warms somewhat slower than the soil in and around town.
Jack Frost, I’ve learned, doesn’t like to be rushed.
Like most winter-weary gardeners, I have seed started indoors and outdoors too early in the season, to no benefit, and often to great detriment. Most seedlings, like most children, catch up in the end, so there is no point and certainly no fun in working them too hard, too soon.
Also like children, seedlings need complex nutrients from the get go, to thrive.
With that in mind, and based more-or-less entirely on instinct, we do not indoor seed start in the sterile soil-less environment suggested by contemporary wisdom. I add worm castings, and plenty of them, to a simple professional mix with perlite, and we fertilize post-germination with a very weak worm compost tea. So far, so good.
When seed starting outdoors in our old greenhouse, we use sifted organic compost and worm castings, and once seedlings are established, we fertilize with a soluble kelp solution and weak compost tea.
On occasion, in the greenhouse, I will see some surface greening of the soil, but we have never had problems with mold, or gnats, or any other sort of soil-specific trouble. Water, light, temperature and ventilation are important variables of course, individually and in combination, and those too should be considered, I believe, in relation to natural ecosystems.
I cannot empirically defend our non-standard choices, rather I share them with you for consideration. It makes sense to me to follow nature’s logic whenever possible. Plants need living soil to thrive without synthetic intervention. Granted, I don’t want an active compost inside my home, so adding worm castings from a castings farm (not from my in-bed worm composts) seems a safe enough bet.
I have been adding compost-activated biochar to my garden soil, but this year we are adding biochar to all seed starting mixes as well, at a rate of 15% by volume. Permaculturists and manufacturers recommend a ratio of 10% to 20% activated biochar to organic compost (or soil), as biochar is known to attract and retain both water and essential nutrients, as well as sequester carbon.
Robert Lavoie, founder of AirTerra Biochar in Alberta recommends adding a small amount of flour to biochar as a carbohydrate source for microbes to munch on, along with rainwater (or de-gassed tap water), to compost (or castings), to kick-start inoculation (activation).
I contacted Robert to ask if he had a carb recommendation other than flour, as I was concerned that indoors, in an artificial growing environment, moist flour might lead to mold.
Robert suggested that we replace flour with a small amount of unsulphured molasses dissolved in rainwater, to moisten the worm casting-enriched biochar. I followed his advice and within two weeks was rewarded with a bin full of beautifully bloomed biochar, well on its way to its forever home in our gardens.
But I couldn’t stop there, soil biology junkie that I am. I contacted Certified Organic Land Care Professional, and Gaia College instructor Christina Nikolic, to solicit her thoughts on adding a native, preferably soluble, version of complete organic fertilizer (COF).
Christina told me that she too uses unsulphured molasses as a carbohydrate source for microbes, and suggested that I also add ‘Tofino Kelp’, a fermented liquid kelp fertilizer-probiotic hybrid, and ‘Sea-Crop’, a concentration of over 80 natural source minerals and active organic substances from the deep sea, to my biochar mixture.
Christina is an organic soil biology guru of sorts and didn’t seem at all critical of my non-conventional seed starting practices. Of course then, I liked her instantly.
Ultimately, I convinced Christina to come to the mainland and spend a very wet and rainy day together in my gardens, helping me among many other things, short-list the native trees, shrubs, perennials, groundcovers and vines that will comprise two main native ecosystems — one woodland and one Garry Oak —- that will replace lawns on our front boulevards.
We spent several glorious hours outside, completely sodden, breaking only for a nutrient-dense and soul-nourishing lunch of roasted organic cauliflower and home-grown winter carrot soup served with home-made pumpernickel inspired seed bread.
We made lists and I took notes, and Christina fine-tuned my grand high altitude ideas into a beautifully simple plan based on ecosystem relationships above and below ground — one that will attract, host and nourish as many species of insects, microbes and birds as possible, in benefit of our property and of the community.
I am both grateful and hopeful.
I am hopeful too that I am on the right track with my super-charged seed starting ‘soilution’, but only time will tell. The wild card of course is the artificial environment. To that end, I am running side-by-side trials comparing the activated biochar-charged medium against a control batch of my regular professional mix plus worm castings. As always, I promise full disclosure.
Until next time, happy gardening!