Elizabeth Barrette (ysabetwordsmith) wrote,
Elizabeth Barrette

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Healthy Soil

Oh look, some farmers are finally getting a clue.  Around here they can't even figure out "don't plow on a windy day or it blows your soil away."

This line caught my eye:
There's no universally accepted measure of soil health, nor a clear definition of regenerative farming.

If you want healthy soil, here are some things you can measure:

* Neutral soil is best for growing most crops. Some prefer acidic or basic soil. A test kit will tell you the details for your soil.

* Good soil is loam. It has a nice balance of sand, clay, and humus to include both water and air. While some plants prefer more extreme soils, most do better in loam. If you want to improve your soil in general, add organic matter. It's hard to go wrong with compost. Look at the soil, though -- you should see lots of different bits in there. If a soil is very sandy, adding clay will help; if it's all clay, add some sand. There are test kits for soil makeup too, but most people just eyeball that.

* It should also be kind of fluffy. Everyone agrees that compacting the soil is bad. There are various strategies to avoid this, such as plowing with horses or gardening in raised beds. Some people feel that digging is also bad, so they avoid plowing. Good luck with that unless you're growing a food forest. Dig up some soil. Does it have worm holes in it? Does it fall apart pretty easily when you poke it?

* Healthy soil is swarming with life. You can't stick a shovel in it without seeing something squiggle out of the way. Dig up some dirt the day after a nice rain. It should be full of earthworms. You may also turn up such things as beetles, sowbugs, or centipedes. There will be many things you can't see without a microscope or petri culture, all the beneficial microbes and fungi and so forth. But you can smell them. Healthy soil has a strong, fresh, earthy smell. It shouldn't smell sour or rotten. If it smells like manure, your compost isn't finished. When it's very wet it might smell moldy or mushroomy. When it's very dry it will smell dusty or sandy. So try to analyze it on a day when the water level is toward the middle. If you want to get fancy, set an amount of soil and count all the live things you see. Do that again after making amendments; it should improve over time. You can also use a microscope and/or petri dishes to reveal the microbes.

* Soil contains minerals from the subsoil below. You want plenty of minerals in a field or garden so they get into the food crops. Growing crops year after year strips the soil of these trace elements along with nutrients like nitrogen. Ideally, you want to replenish those with plants, not chemicals. Nitrogen-fixing crops like legumes will nourish the soil. Miner plants such as comfrey bring up fresh minerals from below. Let them grow a while, then plow them in or slash-and-drop to put those elements in the topsoil. Again, there are test kits for minerals and nutrients. Occasionally someone does a study testing the nutrients in food, which is the really important part, but the results are pretty scattered. However, it is logical that healthy soil will produce healthier food than depleted soil.

* If your measurements improve over time, that's regenerative farming.  It is making the soil better.  If they stay the same or get worse, you're doing something wrong.

You don't have to guess about soil health. You can do science to it. Don't worry about what other people think. It's your soil, pick the measurements you can do and find useful. Someone else being a dumbass may wreck the planet, but it doesn't have to wreck your garden. That much, you can fix yourself and it is actually rather easy. Gaia makes soil very slowly. A lazy human can make good soil in a year by layering a compost pile and then ignoring it. An industrious one can do it in a couple weeks with a tumbler. Worm farms fall in between. Do what works for you. If you're making soil, at least humans are good for something.
Tags: gardening, how to, nature, networking, science, wildlife
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