Living Soil and How Improving Soil Benefits Your Crops
The Living Soil and Its Improvement
Few of us realise how much we rely on thefor our well-being. We should therefore do everything we can to conserve the soil’s resources and increase its productivity so that the resultant rewards may benefit those who follow us. As Sir Albert Howard, that great conservationist once wrote, ‘a fertile soil means healthy crops, healthy livestock, and healthy human beings’.
The soil is not inert dead material but contains myriads of living organisms which must be present if crops are to flourish. There are of course, many types of soil, including loamy, sandy, chalky or limey, clay and peaty but undoubtedly the best for producing vegetables, fruit andis one in which there is plenty of humus.
Plants growing in chalky soils often suffer from chlorosis or yellowing of the leaves resulting in poor growth. Sandy soil dries out quickly, while clay soil may settle down like cement.
Working-in bulky, humus-forming material or ‘ripe’ compost is excellent for improving soil, indeed all of these soils benefit from it. On naturally peaty ground which contains plenty of organic matter, some extramay be necessary. The black peats are nearly always whereas brown peaty lands are easier to cultivate and give better returns.
The land has to be fed and soil has to be improved. This can be done in several ways; by using artificial fertilisers, applying good compost, using farmyard manure, or a mixture of all these methods. Experience has shown that the continual use of bag fertilisers, will in time, lead to an almost lifeless soil that needs to be constantly replenished with the same fertilisers if it is to produce even a token crop of indifferent quality.
For too long, instead of feeding the soil and improving soil quality, we have been content to feed the plants, where necessary often depending on artificial fertilisers in the belief that crops will be heavier and better. Organic gardeners know from experience that a good dark soil, rich in organic humus matter, produces better crops of higher nutritional balance and is a true example of living soil.
Many gardeners can claim from experience that the free use of compost has produced better, healthier plants and well flavoured vegetables and fruits. Plants raised by natural methods are more robust and less liable to attacks by pests and diseases. Healthy crops used for food result in healthy human beings, for our health depends largely upon what we eat.
How the land is treated for improving soil quality, will depend whether or not our food will contain its adequate supply of those properties which cannot be expressed in chemical formulae, but whose presence is made known by the good effect they produce on our health. It is therefore necessary in the interest of quality as well as quantity, for there to be present in the growing medium, the right amount of humus, having the proper physical and biological content so that plants can function properly.
Because of wrong treatment and the urge to gain more rapid results, the soil so often becomes exhausted before nature can replace the loss. This is why organically minded gardeners go in for composting, using animal and garden wastes of all kinds, including weeds and fallen leaves as well as kitchen refuse, to make a compost heap.
When properly made, after a few months these heaps become humus, the natural end result of all animal and vegetable decomposition. A well-made heap engenders heat, which transforms the material into such valuable stuff with little or no smell and no flies. It is crops raised and grown in this natural humus rich soil that are going to have the flavour that makes eating a pleasure. This is largely due to the action of living organisms including worms, bacteria, fungi and enzymes.
It is the effect of the climate over the years and the living organisms or agents that have built up the living soil as we know it today, and consequently improving soil quality. Earthworms in particular have played a great part by passing vegetable matter and soil through their bodies and drawing dead leaves and other material into their holes. They also aerate the soil, the tunnels they make allowing water to have a free passage. The greater the worm population the better the soil, for they breed and grow most freely where there are ample quantities of organic matter.
Generally speaking, chemical fertilisers discourage and may destroy worms whereas the organic gardener will want as many as possible in the ground he cultivates. The fine soil thrown up in worm casts is excellent for seed sowing.
Although we are prone to regard most fungi as undesirable, there are some species that are definitely beneficial. Among these are the mycorrhiza, a name which literally means ‘fungus root’, a term indicating an association of the roots of a plant with a fungus. In some cases this might be undesirable leading to wilting or rotting, but it is known that in certain instances, this association gives protection to the roots helping the plants to resist disease while compost encourages this working relationship.
Comparatively recently it has been discovered that certain soil fungi work on potato root eelworms preventing their increase and in that way act, as pest controllers as well as increasing general soil fertility. Soil bacteria can be beneficial in promoting plant growth and general fertility. They obtain their nutrients and energy from decomposing organic matter. They multiply very rapidly and help to break down the soil through other organisms known as enzymes of which there are different kinds.
One kind of bacteria exists only in association with certain plants, notably the so-called legumes, including beans and peas. They form colonies that live in nodules on the roots. There, they multiply and absorb air nitrogen, transforming it in such a way that the plants can use it, thus improving soil fertility.
There are other living soil organisms but these need not occupy us in our present coverage. What is important, is that the garden should have adequate aeration, good drainage and plenty of bulky organic matter, in order to provide conditions in which nature’s workers can remain and increase in the soil, improving soil quality and in so doing make it more alive and productive and a real ‘living soil’.