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Just what makes good soil?  RSS feed

 
Marty Mitchell
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Location: Chesapeake, Virginia
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“It all starts with the soil”

“Feed the soil. The soil is what feeds your plants”

I have heard these things said several times since I first got into gardening just two short years ago. So all along the way through my (extremely obsessive) learning process I have been making little mental notes each time I hear something that applies to this subject. If it affects the soil in any imaginable way… I will always try to remember it.
Right now I am feeling this strong urge to regurgitate the information I have learned so far and ask you gurus for more input. I also want to have a quick link to post in other forums when speaking about this subject. Lol God bless the internet and its powers of sharing knowledge at the speed of light.
Anyways, I have broken everything down into different categories/paragraphs to make this easier to read. Hopefully all of you will be able to envision what I see in my mind’s eye about what makes good soil. Then be able to add to it. Please remember I am just regurgitating what others have said to the best of my abilities… and adding my imagination in some areas too. So everyone is going to have their own view different from my own.

1. Cover/Microclimate- It all starts here in this category(to me and others). Soil that is covered is soil that comes to life. In nature you will see this most of the time. Cover comes in so many different forms. Trees, a polyculture of densely planted items, grasses, rocks, leaves, wood mulch, etc. Covers create a microclimate that is supportive of life in so many numerous different ways. Covers can accumulate nutrients, hold moisture, keep temperatures at optimal levels, create carbon pathways, etc. They themselves seem to be… in a way… one of those “edge effects” I keep hearing about that is where most forms of life congregate.


2. Beneficial Fungi & Bacteria- Fungi and Bacteria can thrive in the microclimate created through cover. Even the dappled canopy from a tree keeps them from baking in the radiation from the Sun. Fungi and Bacteria can apparently do a massive amount of different things. Fungi will form large networks within the soil essentially becoming an extension of a plants root system. Some will bore into a plants root and some will surround a plants root. The plants they attach to can donate up to 70% (in some species) of the energy produced through photosynthesis to the fungi. In turn, the Fungi will bring the host plant water, nutrients, minerals, etc. I even recently read that many bacteria in soil produce antibiotics to win the fight/right to exist. The host plants in their vicinity can actually absorb these antibiotics and use them to fight infection. Just as we humans use penicillin. There was even talk about some orchard in California inoculating their soil with these bacteria and they now use 80% less fungicides. Saving lots of $$$.


3. The Mighty Worm!- They also like good cover. There is just too much to say in a positive manner about worms. I will post a link at the end of this paragraph about worms and hope you will read it. It is full of just plain awesome tidbits of info./research about worms. Even many references for the info. Anyways, worms of course aerate the soil. Not only eating the bad microbes (fungi, bacteria, etc.)… but eliminating that anaerobic environment in which they thrive at the same time… by again… aerating the soil. Even the guts of a worm have been described as a bio reactor. Their poop has been shown to have up to 1000 times more microbial density than the surrounding soil. Their poop holds more water than the surrounding soil. The bad nematode population can be decreased by worms. Nutrients get moved around during the “mining” process. When a worm dies it fertilizes. They will neutralize Both acidic soil and alkaline soil. They can break up hardpan clay(under the right conditions aka cover). If 1 square foot were to have 25 worms within the top several feet of soil… then that is 1million worms per acre. A new USA study indicates 1½ million worms per acre would Move 20 tons of earth each year. Talk about free labor. I’m going to stop there. Too much to type. Here is the link… http://mypeoplepc.com/members/arbra/bbb/id19.html


4. Water- Important on so many levels. It is a very common subject spoken about and an easy one to grasp. I am not going talk about the ways to slow it down through swells and such. How soil cover keeps it from escaping. How worms can keep it from running off of your property too. Or how moist soil enables roots to punch through hard soil (OK I kind of just did! Lol) However, I did see in that geoff lawton video of how having a 16ft deep saturation in the soil is enough to keep most trees alive without irrigation. I even heard Paul mention in one of his podcasts about how when the water seeps through the soil it will pull fresh air in behind it! I thought this was astounding because I know nitrogen is in air. So does the nitrogen get pulled into the soil this way too Anybody I am really curious. Is air fertilizer? 


5. Birds- Once you get things kicking and the soil(everything) is coming to life you may see birds. In my case vast amounts of birds. The birds I have in my yard in vast numbers are continuously eating bugs, slugs, worms, snails, seeds, and even ripping out vegetation for nests(this time of year). All the while pooping and peeing fertilizer… EVERYWHERE. I have seen flocks of several hundred birds a few times a day in my yard during the winter since I am on a migratory route for many species. Right now I have several Robin nests around my house. They are eating the worms and pooping all over the place all the time. I only have a .36acre yard.


6. Rabbits- I do currently have around 7 or so rabbits that frequent my yard. Over the years they have filled my hardpan yard into a mine field of small dips from which they have their young in. Each of those dips fills with water during rain and helps my yard retain more water in a natural mini swale fashion. There is a pile of rabbit pellets every 5 to 10 ft. Just more fertilizer.


7. Squirrels- When I see them I can’t help but think about the YouTube video I saw about “the man who planted trees”. Squirrels are exactly like that to me.


8. Bugs- Micro-poop and fertilize through their being eaten by everything/or deaths by natural causes. Support life in many ways and remove the weaker things that don’t belong… creating carbon pathways from those dead root systems and adding biomass/fertilizer to the soil.


9. Reptiles/ Amphibians- I read once that a single North American Toad can eat up to 15,000 bugs a year. That is some seriously good fertilizer. I had one that once hung out under a light all night-every night. He was so fat that he could not hop anymore by the end of summer.


10. Perennial Plants- Deep root systems can both harvest and accumulate deep water and nutrients. The deeper root systems will create deeper life within the soil. Think several meters. Increasing the depth/amount of worms, fungi, bacteria, etc. per cubic foot in the land. Also, most prairie environments typically have warm season grasses, cool season grasses, and legumes. All these things can keep the sun’s energy feeding the land year round(possibly). So… drum roll… Maximizing the land’s ability to absorb the sun in a way that feeds life alllll year is the key to more life supported per square foot on that land.


11. Edge Effect- I have read several times that all life tends to congregate on the borders of two or more edges/environments. By creating as many different edges within an environment you will be simply stacking to the amount of life it can support. All of those functions will feedback into themselves creating a cascade effect for more life. Assuming Nature finds a Balance at some point in there.


I just love Sepp’s calling the neighboring mountainsides around his home as a “pine desert”. Even though there is obviously life there on many small levels, the land is not supportive for the complexity and diversity of life.



 
Miles Flansburg
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Marty , awesome post!

My old eyes were having a hard time reading the close spacing so I took the liberty to add some spacing. I hope you do not mind.
 
Marty Mitchell
Posts: 319
Location: Chesapeake, Virginia
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I don't mind at all. I honestly would not even mind if some parts needed to get edited out for any reason.

I am just glad it made a little sense in the end. lol
 
Michael Vormwald
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Great post regurgitation and all!

I built my home in 1979 on a 3 acre hillside patch that my grandfather once pastured his work horses. The soil here was/is very poor... a hard redish clay with lots of rocks. More a subsoil than any topsoil. A tiller would just bounce around on top as if I was in a parking lot and give me a good thrashing in the process. I planted crops of buckwheat and winter rye to till in along with all the leaves I could get. I've made truckloads of compost and vermicompost. All the green kitchen scraps, rabbit hutch litter, yard and garden waste goes into the garden sooner or later.
Now I have dark, rich soil in my 1/4 acre vegetable garden that grows food well and just keeps getting better.

Building good garden soil is a journey for which there is no final destination.
 
Bryan Jasons
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Location: Maine
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I like the list Marty!

I would add the soil's "Cation Exchange Capacity" to your list; clay and organic matter increase the amount of minerals the soil can hold without them leaching.

http://www.soilquality.org.au/factsheets/cation-exchange-capacity
 
Bryan Jasons
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Location: Maine
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"I even heard Paul mention in one of his podcasts about how when the water seeps through the soil it will pull fresh air in behind it! I thought this was astounding because I know nitrogen is in air. So does the nitrogen get pulled into the soil this way too Anybody I am really curious. Is air fertilizer?" - Marty

To answer your question about nitrogen from air/rainfall : "Rainfall adds about 10 pounds of nitrogen to the soil per acre per year."

http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/Crops/00550.html

I think you guessed right!

Also interesting to me; anaerobic soil loses it's nitrogen through denitrification. Microorganisms convert nitrogen to it's ammonium form which can be held in place, i.e. not leached out, because of the cation exchange capacity of clay and organic matter since ammonium is a positively charged ion. Once nitrogen is in the nitrate form it is negatively changed and can leach out of the soil.
 
Dan Boone
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Michael Vormwald wrote:Building good garden soil is a journey for which there is no final destination.


My mother built good garden soil in raised beds on permafrost by hauling in (with a little unwilling help from her children) endless loads of sawdust, sand, manure (when she could get it), salmon offal, and forest duff (carefully screened, again mostly by her children). Most of the work happened between 1975 and 1984, but she was still working on it through 1993. After she passed, my father ignored the garden for at least 10 years, until the summer when he was real broke and one of mom's old friends made him an offer he chose not to refuse. He got paid about 300 bucks and the friend came in with a front end loader and hauled all that soil away. I'm told it was growing quite the young forest of alders and willows and birches by then.

I guess what I'm saying is that the journey never ends even for the soil.
 
Michael Vormwald
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Location: Central New York - Finger Lakes - Zone 5
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Hey Dan (assuming that's your real name .... what a great name...bet you get some coon skin comments here and there!)
Great story. It's too bad that your mothers (indirect) hard work just went wild after her passing. Sad too that in the end it was only worth $300. The again, perhaps her legacy lives on as you say?
But perhaps a somewhat common story. My grandfather was a gentleman farmer and had a great garden on the old homestead. He gardened in conventional rows 3 feet apart but built the most beautiful soil in his garden by adding all sorts of manure and plant wastes (he had the most interesting old time chopper for corn stalks). After his passing, the garden just went to weeds. One year, a few years later, my dad decided to have a garden there (even though he lived miles away in town). I helped him plant it but after that it was all weeds. The property was sold after my Grandmother passed and the last I knew that great garden plot was/is still growing weeds...its a shame really.


Dan Boone wrote:
Michael Vormwald wrote:Building good garden soil is a journey for which there is no final destination.


My mother built good garden soil in raised beds on permafrost by hauling in (with a little unwilling help from her children) endless loads of sawdust, sand, manure (when she could get it), salmon offal, and forest duff (carefully screened, again mostly by her children). Most of the work happened between 1975 and 1984, but she was still working on it through 1993. After she passed, my father ignored the garden for at least 10 years, until the summer when he was real broke and one of mom's old friends made him an offer he chose not to refuse. He got paid about 300 bucks and the friend came in with a front end loader and hauled all that soil away. I'm told it was growing quite the young forest of alders and willows and birches by then.

I guess what I'm saying is that the journey never ends even for the soil.
 
Dan Boone
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Well, the nice thing about building soil is that it doesn't really degrade by itself. The weeds that grow die back in their places, and organic matter just accumulates, absent external forces like farming or erosion.

I've been thinking about this with respect to the abandoned house next to my yard that's falling in on itself. It appears to have been built in 1949 and occupied by the same increasingly-elderly tenants through the 1970s or 1980s, then rented to random short-term parties until it became uninhabitable due to lack of maintenance sometime around the turn of the century. There are daffodils, day lilies, blue iris, and naturalized elephant garlic all over the vicinity that all seem to have escaped originally from that yard.

I'm just starting to clear the honey locusts out of the former front and side yards, where they are growing up strongly. My motivation is that when I set foot in that yard, the ground softens and feels like I'm walking on a firm sponge. The original long-term tenants were serious gardeners by all accounts, and when you sink a shovel, the soil is deep and soft and rich, at least by comparison to the compacted clay soils that underlie most of the nearby yards and former pastures. There are serious challenges involved in cleaning up that yard to the point where I could grow things, but it seems worth doing.

I guess what I'm saying here is that built soil is indeed a legacy, and you never know how long it will be until somebody comes along who appreciates it. Just think of how many gardens were paved over when America's strip-mall suburbs were built. In any future where intensive local farming plays a role, I think we'll hear stories of people pulling up asphalt with a jackhammer and discovering black gold beneath in the form of well-build garden soils just waiting for the reintroduction of water, air, sunshine, and essential creepie-crawlies.
 
Marty Mitchell
Posts: 319
Location: Chesapeake, Virginia
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You guys are throwing down some great points of views as well as great info.

Is it ok if I were to go back up to the original post from time to time to add some new info as it gets presented in this thread?


I am now starting to think that all the clay in my yard may become a very good thing in time.


Also, I remember reading a long time ago about someone who studied soil nutrients and their effects on plants. He stated that it isn't how much NP&K that is in the soil that determines how big and healthy a plant can get(as far as nutrients go). It is the amount of the most lacking nutrient that limits the plants.

That is awesome that rain/air really does fix nitrogen! I wanted to add that I remember reading that the USDA figures that white clover fixes at least 300lbs of nitrogen per acre per year. 1/3 of what nitrogen hungry grass needs to grow.
 
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