When we first start out to build great soil for our plants many well intended people follow recommendations from their nurseryman or a county extension service employee.
If we forget to mention that we want to do things in an organic manner the odds are that we are going to be advised to pour lime on the soil first then plant our seeds and later on we will put fertilizer or one of the “weed and feed” fertilizer/ herbicide blends.
Very rarely would you be lucky enough to find someone who simply tells you “just plant your seeds, those will start doing the improvements you want in the end”.
If you ever did hear those words from an “expert”, you should nurture that relationship for you have found someone who really is expert at building soil health so every plant grown in that soil is a healthy plant full of nutrients and growth vigor.
Fortunately, this sort of knowledgeable person is becoming less and less a rarity and even the county extension service agents are giving out methods to build soil without using any artificial, chemicals be they fertilizer, insecticide or herbicide.
Many of these folks are even using these recommendations in their own gardens and yards which gives them practical experiences to pass along to the asking public.
Good news for all of us involved in remediation work or practicing permaculture at any level.
So how can we grow plants (vegetables and all other members of the plant kingdom) and at the same time build our soil and the microorganisms we need to have really great soil?
How exactly does this method work and how long will it take if all I do is grow plants?
These are the fundamental questions I hear every time I give a presentation (ok, you can call them lectures) to a new batch of students.
Let me break the processes down into understandable bits which are easier to grasp without the benefit of the overhead projector.
I will make the assumption that since you are reading this, you have already read most of the Soil Series already published on permies and located by the link at the top of the soil page on the permies site.
If you have not read those, I recommend you do, since those will give you a solid background for understanding quite a lot about soil and how it differs from dirt.
In this scenario we will be starting with dirt and what we want to do is understand how simply planting seed or already growing plants will effectively change the biological makeup of the dirt, turning it into soil.
First thing to know is that dirt has no organic matter and there are no living organisms micro or macro living in that dirt.
Let us then assume that we are going to start with seeds.
We plant the seeds and keep the dirt moist so the seeds will swell and germinate and sure enough they do.
Now the cotlydons open to take in light to provide growing energy through the processes of photosynthesis, at the same time the root grows down into the soil looking to anchor the plant and find nutrients to draw into the plant through the root.
Time goes by and the single root grows side shoot roots and lo and behold those side roots are located by some bacteria that settled onto the surface of the moist dirt, wiggled their way down below the surface to get away from the UV rays of the sun, and now they found some new roots to call home.
These bacteria shout for joy by excreting chemical signals which draw more bacteria which follow the scent of those chemical excretions and they finally find the party and join in the frolicking good times.
But, those chemical excretions were also picked up on by some mycorrhizal fungi spores that have landed on the moist dirt surface.
The moisture causes them to germinate and they change from spores to mycelium strands.
Those strands snake their way down into the soil, following the scent trail left by the bacteria excretions and they locate the fine roots of the new and growing plant.
Once these mycorrhizal mycelium locate the roots they wrap around those roots growing and forming a protective root coat that is full of spaces large enough for bacteria to squeeze through.
Some of those mycelium are of the endo varieties of mycorrhizae and those strands work their way through the cell walls of the root and take up housekeeping inside the plants roots.
Now we have a way for bacteria to actually enter the plants roots, once a bacteria is inside the plant root will contract and literally squeeze the bacteria until it give up nutrients, once those nutrients are out of the bacteria, the root will spit out the now empty bacteria cells and they will go about eating minerals again.
If we planted a whole acre at the same time, all the plants that sprouted will end up with the bacteria and fungi in close proximity since nether likes to live in dirt, they like to live with other living things.
Organic matter is usually what you will be told needs to be added to dirt to make it soil.
Sadly, unless that organic matter is compost, it probably doesn’t have the microbe numbers dirt needs to become soil.
However, organic matter does have most of the food stuffs that those microbes we want need so they can thrive and reproduce rapidly.
If you have a good quantity of organic compost laying around, please use it as an amendment either before you plant or use it as the top dressing (mulch) around your new plants as they come up through the ground.
Roots are organic matter, and living organic matter is capable of sending out messages which draw the organisms of the microbiome to them.
This means we can add organic matter just by planting seeds and helping them sprout and grow.
Of course we can also add other organic matter prior to planting, during planting and or after planting.
While you can find sources that say there is a limit on how much organic matter a good soil will have, my own research trials have shown that in most instances those sources recommend a smaller amount than we can actually make use of.
Organic matter is always being consumed, so I can’t think of any instance where you would want to say “ok, I have enough organic matter in my garden now”, unless you added in “for now” in place of “now”.
So we can add organic matter to dirt at the start of remediation into soil by augmentation or we can add organic matter by growing plants in the dirt and add some microbes that we want into the soil both via the actions the plants undertake,
or we can add them through drenching with aerated compost tea or use of a fungal additive or both or all three.
We have choices and none of these mentioned are bad for building soil.
If you decide to plant trees there are a few things you need to do to insure those trees have the best chance possible for establishing good root systems along with having a good microbiome surrounding their root systems, thereby providing as good an environment as possible from the moment of planting.
First off do not amend the soil you remove from the planting hole, when you do this you create an in the ground big container, which the roots will love and they will end up growing just as if they had remained in their container,
that means the roots aren’t going to spread out very far which brings a whole host of problems as the tree gets older.
If we instead just use the ground we removed for planting, use water to which mycorrhizae spores have been added (I like mycogrow personally) and then do subsequent watering with compost tea, we are giving the tree all the helper organisms it wants and needs to thrive,
the roots will move out into the native soil without any desire to stick around in a nice amended container in the ground and the roots will have exo and endo mycorrhizae for nutrient uptake as well as bacteria and all the other organisms for disease protection and nutrient availability.
We can also apply these principles to any seeds we plant as well as any transplants we install.
The dirt will rapidly become soil, older roots will die and decompose and we are growing our soil at the same time we are growing our plants and trees.
It is always important to keep in mind that good soil doesn’t happen in a month or even half a year. While the soil will be always improving, we have to allow for around 2 years of efforts before we should expect to find awesome soil in our shovel when we dig a new hole.
If that hole is nowhere near those plants and trees already placed by us in the soil, we will find that we need to follow our “standard proceedures” when we plant new items in new places.
Over time we will end up with all our ground full of the microbiome we so heartily desire and watering will be less and less needed, except on long dry spell occasions.
This frees us, the gardener/ farmer/ nurseryman, so we can focus on other needs of our land and plants.
The microbiome will make use of all the minerals that are present and the leaves of our plants will let us know if something is missing that is really important.
It is important to understand that the number of minerals found in the land masses is around 20 % less than the number of minerals found in the oceans.
It is also important to understand that minerals are not the same in every part of the world or even within the confines of one square mile.
Having this understanding allows us to be able to use sea derived minerals (un processed sea salt) to put all the minerals known to exist in our part of the universe to ensure that the foods we grow will have the full complement of minerals to draw from.
Contrary to popular belief using sea salt to improve the mineral profile does not cause salination of the soil unless one lays down several pounds per sq. ft. of soil, it will only benefit the microbiome and our plants.
For this to work well, it is important to have a healthy microbiome living and working in the soil.
and this thread will be added to as I have time, again.
So we have some seeds in the soil, they have sprouted and are above ground with roots growing down into the soil.
These roots are putting out small amounts of their sugary exudates, calling both bacteria and fungi to come and set up housekeeping please.
Now we have bacteria coming and they will start spitting their enzymes on the mineral containing rocks and pebbles, gathering up and eating those minerals and leaving any extras behind for the plant roots or whatever else to eat.
The fungi strands of mycelium that were nearby have gotten the message and are growing towards the roots, either to surround them like a blanket of protection or to go internal and make a root cell their home.
At the same time, these mycelium strands are secreting some enzymatic substances of their own, which act more like a glue than a true enzymatic action.
This fungal glue sticks particles of minerals and organic matter into a mycelium covering, making the strands look like they are part of the soil around them.
It works as a sort of camouflage, hiding the fungi from the parasitic nematodes and other micro- organisms the fungi prefers to dine on.
When the fungi eat these critters, they are protecting the plant, roots and all from any diseases the prey items might be carrying.
The conglomerate the fungi created around it opens up channels in the soil matrix which allows water and air to infiltrate down into the soil.
The bacterial left overs that no one can consume lay around until one of these inhabitants needs a snack, but at the same time, these tasty tidbits have a scent, which wafts through the many fungal channels,
attracting other members of the microbiome, and they start showing up to join the party and have a feast.
Many plants (we now know) can trick bacteria to travel along the mycorrhizae strands and enter the root cells, the root contracts once there are enough bacteria inside and this action squeezes the bacteria so they expel the nutrients they just ate.
In this manner, plants can get extra nutrients exactly where they want them for easy transport up the stems into the leaves.
Once the bacteria are emptied, the plant root spits them out and the bacteria go about dissolving and eating again since they just lost their supper to the mean old plant roots.
What we learn from plants and how they thrive and build the soil they live in was mostly a mystery until a very short time ago, speaking in the human life chain of events cycle instead of the planetary or universe cycle.
When I was in University it was thought and accepted as fact that plant roots worked by themselves to gather the nutrients needed for plant growth.
Today we know so much more than we did back in the 1960’s and 70’s.
Today we know that there are many life forms involved in the growth of any plant.
We know that dirt only becomes soil when these minute life forms are present in great numbers and that those organisms also change the very structure of the soil they live in to better suit their own needs, which happen to coexist within the needs of plant life forms.
We know that these microorganisms also protect the plant from viral, disease and pest attacks.
We also know today that plants will send out signals when they are sick and thusly perform a type of seppuku by drawing to them the agents of their destruction.
Only by making sure our soil has all the right organisms and nutrients can we be sure our plants will be healthy and their fruits full of nutrients our bodies require to be healthy too.
Micrococcus, chromobacterium, flavobacterium, bacillus, arthrobacter and pseudomonas are the most prevalent types of bacteria found in soils.
These guys are responsible for most of the decaying, recombining and dispersal of minerals found in soils.
They also are very active in disease prevention and parasite destroying which protects the plants they also are feeding.
When the flavobacterium manages to infiltrate the roots and then travel up the phylum into the stems and leaves it produces some of the compounds we know as flavinoids,
which are prime examples of plant produced compounds that help protect the human body from disease as well as keeping the whole of the human body functioning well.
Bacillus and arthrobacter are active in compost since these are two of the prime players in the decay processes as well as providing some of the many compounds that plants need for not only overall growth
but they work alongside the plants immune system to prevent diseases from gaining a foot hold.
Almost all the bacteria varieties we find in soil do double duty since they can not only decay organic matter or mineral matter and then recombine parts of their handy work into new compounds which they, the fungi and the plants can then make use of as food stuffs.
Along the way some of the bacteria cells will themselves become food for fungi, flagellates, amoeba, and nematodes.
They will also feed upon the previous list of organisms which keeps the microorganism world in better balance for optimum functioning on all levels.
Some drain line maintenance has revealed to me to a bit of anecdotal evidence of the soil quality where root activity is high.
Pictured are the ends of two parallel drain lines running underground that originate from separate downspouts on the same roof gutter system. The right line had a root system that grew up the line from the open end. The left line had an accumulation of soil without the intrusion of roots. The material below each line was cleaned out of it. Although not a controlled environment, I like to think it's possible that the only difference between the two soils is the root activity.
Indeed, most of the carbon in the soil gets there through living roots of plants that get their carbon from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The majority of the carbon in dead plant residue is respired by microbes as they decompose it and the carbon ends up back in the atmosphere, not in the soil. Mulch and other plant residues serve many important purposes for the soil, but living roots contribute the most carbon (organic matter) into the soil. Since the biotic glues that hold soil aggregates together are also food for some soil microbes, soil organic matter must be continuously replenished if we are to maintain or increase the amount of it in the soil.
How do you feel about legumes/nitrogen fixing plants? I tried chopping the dead vines of my bean plants at the soil level this winter to let the roots decay in the ground. The soil in those patches does seem to be a bit lighter and fluffier than the wet and sandy soil I've been working to improve, but I'm not sure if its due to bacteria or earthworm/insect activity.
posted 6 months ago
See there, you're educating me!
The black color I'm observing in the heavily rooted soil is due to the higher carbon content.
Let's get him boys! We'll make him read this tiny ad!