Create living soil:
How to use permaculture and regenerative soil management practices to increase soil fertility and soil health, and thus the resilience of the whole ecosystem

Here I explain to you how to create living soil with the help of plants. Below are the five principles of regenerative farming expanded into six points by opening up the rule to reduce interference into mechanical (digging and ploughing) and chemical interferernce, which you will see below. I will also add my own ideas about how it can be practiced in an urban setting.

Principle 1: Cover the soil !

Create soil cover with plants.

Never leave soil exposed to the sunlight but cover it immediately with mulch and try and get ground covers to grow as soon as possible. UV light and the high temperatures of exposed soil will kill the microbes and in a while the mulch will oxidise or decompose and disappear. Living perennial plants will continue to regenerate, and take the soil organics much deeper with their root exudates than mulch, which is a surface dressing. You can use cover crops or ground covers to keep the soil covered interspersed with bigger plants that have deeper roots.

Leave the soil alone. Feed it and care for it gently.Leave the soil alone. Feed it and care for it gently.

Principle 2. Do not disturb !

Don't till or dig.

Tilling and digging disturbs the layers of the living soil with its locally adapted microbial life, killing off whatever is brought to the hot, dry surface. Elaine Ingham teaches us about the wonderful diversity of soil organisms, and watching some of her youtube videos is well worth it. If regenerative farmers use ploughs they are designed merely to open up heavy compacted soil and introduce oxygen, and specifically not to turn it, as this is so destructive. Yes there may be a short fertility boost and reduction in some pathogens after disturbing the soil, but in the long term your soil will become infertile due to the sanitizing effect of turning it and the loss of soil structure. Digging and ploughing break up the hyphae and the aggregates in which the beneficial organisms that make living soil shelter. These organisms provide the majority of plant available nutrients in plant friendly quantities, and when the plant needs them. They supply much more of the nutrients than chemical fertilizers do.

Harnessing living soil in a gray water bio-filter which decomposes the soap and body dirt, to gently and slowly supply plant nutrients. The taro, fennel and climbing spinach are very grateful.Harnessing living soil in a gray water bio-filter which decomposes the soap and body dirt, to gently and slowly supply plant nutrients. The taro, fennel and climbing spinach are very grateful.

Principle 3. No chemicals !

Do not use chemicals such as inorganic fertilizers and biocides.

The biocidal chemicals like antibiotics, weedkillers and insecticides kill the beneficial organisms in living soil too. The fungicides kill the beneficial fungal hyphae in the soil and this leads to loss of soil structure, Killing the beneficial bacteria and fungi robs the plant of its natural nutrient supply, as well as the protective coating around the roots formed by the bacteria. The chemical fertilizers weaken the plant like any chemical dependency, and the plants produce fewer sugars for the soil microbes, as they do not need to drive the nutrient supply process themselves.The consequence is fewer microbes. This loss of soil life leads to loss of soil structure, and compaction of the soil.

It has also been found that an excess of nitrogen will lead to loss of organic carbon in the soil, like an excess of nitrogen in a compost heap leads to more rapid decomposition and the collapsing of the pile. Nitrogen turns up the heat and a number of useful nutrients turn into gases when the heat is too high. Nitrogen drives the oxidation of soil carbon which then evaporates as carbon dioxide. Excess nitrogen likewise evaporates out of the soil as the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. This is the very thing we don't want for global warming.

Getting ready to inoculate the soil with a diverse microbe mix. Sifting humanure.Getting ready to inoculate the soil with a diverse microbe mix. Sifting humanure.

Less soil carbon will reduce all the beneficial physical and chemical properties of soil carbon, not least of which is sequestration of atmospheric carbon. The other benefits that will disappear are the microbial diversity and the numbers of fungal hyphae transporting water,  and with them the plant friendly and plant strengthening natural nutrient  and water supply found in well structured living soil. Without an adequate supply of the building blocks of life, plant growth and photosynthesis slows. It is the secondary metabolites, or byproducts of photosynthesis that from poisons that help with plant defense. Without the support from living soil, and its optimal nutrient supply, the plant lacks structural vigor, root protection provided by microbes and chemical defense mechanisms in the leaves, and is weakened. More irrigation, biocides and fertilizers are needed, putting up input costs, in an ever increasing vicious cycle.

When you pull up roots you destroy these beautiful soil aggregates !When you pull up roots you destroy these beautiful soil aggregates that are forming around the root !

Principle 4. Leave roots alone !

Leave roots in the soil for as long as possible.

The best way of doing this is to use perennials, such as perennial cover crops. The great benefit of perennial vegetables is that you can harvest again and again and most of them keep coming.

The other benefit is that perennial vegetables are often more nutritious. Our farming system has developed to focus on annual crops. The focus on breeding has been financial, and thus on rapid growth and easy harvesting, as well as size and sweetness, rather than unique or complex flavor. The breeders did not focus on nutrition, so that it became peripheral and modern plant foods are seriously deficient in nutrients compared to those from even a hundred years ago. Dan Kitteridge has an interesting take on flavor and nutrition, and believes our appreciation of flavor is nature's nutrient test, and flavorful natural food is always more nutrient dense. Nutrient density is a by product of living soil. Good flavor shows that a farmer is using regenerative soil practices. So, the connection with perennials is that our ancestors also ate a lot more soil saving perennials which had experienced a lot less breeding. That gave them a double whammy of flavor.

One can also leave cover crops to rot in the soil over winter, in areas without year round growth periods, or use the permaculture chop and drop method rather than pulling up weeds.

Bird seed mix for cover cropsBird seed mix for cover crops

Principle 5. Diversity !

Increase plant biodiversity.

Diversity in systems generally gives them resilience. Diversity in plants is the key to a greater diveresity of sugars and plant chemicals in the soil and a more diverse soil microbiome. The more diverse the microbiome, the broader and more optimal the spectrum of nutrients in the soil.

Plant diversity also supports insect diversity as many insects are choosy about their plant hosts, and can do nothing with exotic plants they are not evolved to use. Insect diversity means greater levels of pollination in all your plants, and in some specific ones, especially native plants. Its not just bees that pollinate. Some plants need long tongued insects, or large wooly insects like bumble bees, monkey beetles or flies to be pollinated for instance. Increased pollination leads to better yields as well as the maintenance of plant diversity.

To maintain diversity, ideally cover crop mixes should have at least five species. Some farmers use up to forty species in their seed mixes. This is expensive for covering large areas of land, but in a home garden you can do it by saving all kinds of seed, from useful weeds like amaranths, to nasturtiums, wild peas, sorghum and other grasses. The cheapest source I have found is bird seed, with an 11 rand (1 dollar) bag being enough for at least ten square meters of garden. Some bird seed has a lovely mix of summer grasses, legumes and amaranth, just what is needed in a soil building cover crop mix. Add in some beet and radish seed, and leaf vegetables like mustard, and whatever local edible ground covers you can find. This will mean that you can crop and eat the leaves of the cover crop later, building living soil in so doing, as the roots die back a little and become food for soil organisms.

A pentagonal humanure composter allows much more space for composting to occur, and hence more heat and safer composting.A pentagonal humanure composter allows much more space for composting to occur, and hence more heat and safer composting.

Principle 6. Integrate animals.

Integrate animals somehow.

This is also possible in urban gardens by supplying the same services that animals provide.

A regenerative farmer would have his sharp hooved cattle grazing the meadows of richly diverse grasses and other plants. Their manure fertilizes and inoculates the soil, the hooves trample the plants and drive organic matter into intimate contact with soil organisms, and the cropping of the plants stimulates regrowth. The trick is to keep the cattle moving, like a wild herd would keep moving, and for them not to return that season, so that the grasses are not overgrazed to the point where they can't recover and diminished plant cover results and desertification starts. Another trick is to allow only partial grazing, leaving some of the grass standing, so that it can flower and seed. The father of this type of farming was Alan Savory, but any google search on regenerative farming will pull up loads of material by interesting and passionate practitioners and teachers like Gabe Brown and Christine Jones.

In an urban garden moving cattle will be harder to organize !. You could scale down, using fences to move chickens, ducks, quail, rabbits, guinea pigs, or one larger animal like a goat around in mobile pens. This is if regulations allow it.

Carob seeds are delicious and the plants trees are really easy to grow in our climate.

You can also simply supply the services animals supply to create living soil by manuring lightly, cropping the plants a little (gradual harvesting would do this) trampling the cover crops flat, as well as aerating the ground a little with a fork.

We always have plenty of available manure as we produce it ourselves. It is merely a question of learning how to compost it safely before it is spread out in the garden. I am intending mixing my 40 species cover crop mix with sifted humanure and biochar, and spreading the lot a centimeter deep over the areas I want cover crops. This spreads the seeds more evenly, provides a probiotic boost for the soil as well as some nutrients, till the plants take hold and do the rest of the regenerative work themselves.

The need for animal nitrogen can also be reduced by using nitrogen fixing plants, either in your cover crops or as support plants in your garden.  An added bonus would be if they supplied human food too.

The next article on the environmental benefits of living soil

In the next article the multiple positive feedback loops and virtuous cycles that arise from culturing living soil will be discussed. Watch this space, and click this link when the article has been published and it goes live ! (you will see the link has turned green). If you have not read it yet, see my article on the science behind why plants create healthy soil, written in a jargon free friendly style, or browse my many other articles on composting and home made soil additives by following this link.

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