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Measures of effective soil building  RSS feed

 
gardener
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I have never really been that big into specific measures of progress with my gardening. I follow many best-practices that I have read to improve soil health and organic matter. But I often wonder, am I making a difference? I have been reading Effective Altruism lately, and it has me thinking: how do we measure the most effective means of building soil?

To better set this up, the basis for Effective Altruism is that for much of history we have been afraid to measure the results of altruism. We get very excited about deployment: how many devices the charity has deployed or how many books they've bought. But the most effective means of change are often not obvious. The classic example is answering a question as to how to improve education in 3rd world countries. Lots of people are happy to spend money buying books, hiring teachers, giving kids flashlights, almost anything that seems obvious. But it turns out the most effective means of improving education in the 3rd world is deploying dewormers. They're extremely cheap and have an incredible impact on keeping kids in school. The way we found that out was through experimentation and measurement.

This hit hard on my personal permaculture strings. I hear so many people talk about different ways to build soil and they are almost always mentioned as equals. Plant nitrogen fixers. Deep rooted plants. Compost teas. Keyline plows. Holistic managed grazing. Name it — it's all on the table, and somehow lives on equal footing. Thus far I have not seen much measurement or proof aside from "it makes things better" — which, sure, but how much? And for how much input? In what context? And what does building soil even mean? Does it mean increasing the microbial life in the soil (I have seen measurements from Elaine Ingram on this subject!) Does it mean increasing the organic matter?

… or does it just mean measuring the amount of darker looking soil? Or root depth?



What I'm looking for right now are more places to learn more. What does building soil really mean? How can we quantify it? How can we give people better signals that they are in fact building soil and by how much?
 
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Location: Charlotte, NC
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I'm right there with ya. Great stuff! Have you ever heard of terra preta? Science has finally agreed that "uncouth naked jungle people" purposefully and methodically concocted a recipe to grow soil out of broken bits of terra cotta and many other ingredients. People today still harvest it from the same spots year after year and talk of how they see it growing. This stuff is ooooold, and the fact that many still dig it for profit and have not bled it dry has got to say something. I also love the idea that some of the "untameable and deadly" jungles of our world are most likely epic food forests designed by healthy minds of the past probably with the understanding that it would still be here today.

Now I give thanks to them and to you.
 
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Here's one metric I use:  ease of digging.

So at one end of the scale my wrists hurt after hacking with a trowel to dig a hole for a seed.  On the other end of the scale I can transplant seedlings with my bare hands and not even need to scrub under my nails.  I'm not sure but this might be decribed as "tilth" or organic content of the soil.  As well as measuring effort of planting it seems to be related to moisture wicking and retention and therefore survival of plants.
 
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1st one would have to define what soil building is.
Then next figure out the best way to accomplish that goal.

For me soil building is having my soil provide all the compounds/mineral that my plants need for then to be nutrient dense and resilent without continual inputs from me.

The 'nutrient/compound' that plants need most is water.
So swales/berms to give it more time to soak into the root zone
Aeration and Carbon to store the water

Next would come nitrogen
So Nitrogen fixing bacteria/legumes to "make it'
Soil life that is peeing, pooping and decaying, thus keeping the nitrogen in the root zone vs leaching away or back into the air.
Carbon in the soil to store a bit of the nitrogen and to house the soil life
Enough water to keep it bio-available and support soil life

Now onto the other mineral
Fungi to 'make them' in a bio-available from from the 'rock dust particles' and soil-life in the soil
Water to keep it dissolved
Leaves to feed the root-mycelium matrix
Soil life that is peeing, pooping and decaying, thus releasing minerals in a bio-available form, that is 'recycled' vs leached away quickly.

We all know that making money and saving money are two very different things.
So now that we have 'supposedly' made wonderful soil we have to save it in place vs watching it get eroded away.
1)Ground Cover - Woodchip - Living Mulch
2)Root-Mycelium Mat
3)Swales/Berm
4)Windbreak

And then we have the wonderful 'IT DEPENDS' on 'LOCATION'.
If I on the eastern USA seaboard, I probably don't have to focus too much money on setting up a water well.
But if I am in the more arid South-West, water will probably be the best place to put my resources, say a $20,000 well.

And like any other complex system with positive/negative feedback loop, the more diversity and fail-over, fail-safe and redundancy the better it is.


 
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In the world of Soil Science we have defined soil as dirt that contains and nourishes the many microorganisms that live in soil, this includes fungi, bacteria, amoeba, nematodes, and so on.
These soil organisms create a nutrient circle of life, that is there are mineral eaters and then a line of predators.
The way we measure the components is both chemical (Gas Chromatograph or liquid chromatography or mass spectrometry are the best methods) and through microscopic examination and counting of the organisms of the microbiome.

While all of the "required" minerals are present in almost every area of planet earth, there has been a very recent discovery that shows, that while not absolutely required there are minerals not found in the dirt that are very beneficial to both the microbiome and plants.
These "missing" minerals are found in sea water and that was pioneered by Maynard Murray MD, Weston Price DDS, William Albrecht PhD, Arden Anderson MD.
Each of these men discovered that flooding a field with sea water did not harm the soil or plants but instead gave them added nutrients that were beneficial to the plants and to the humans eating those plants.
It was also shown that in areas where flooding land with sea water was not viable, the use of non purified sea salt worked just as well.
It was also found that neither of these methods increased salinity of the soil in a manner that was detrimental to the soil life or the plant life, unless it was greatly over done and that those levels were far higher than what was previously known.


So what is soil? Soil is dirt (the mineral base formed by various sizes of ground up rocks) and this dirt is filled with the soil microorganisms, this allows for plants to grow and that allows for air channels in the soil structure which allow for water infiltration.
As the plants die, they deposit their organic bodies on the surface and their roots in the soil decay through the actions of the microbiome which use them for food.
Over time enough organic material is worked into the soil that higher (more developed) plants can establish, this is the action of succession, where the smallest plants start the process and giant trees eventually are the end, until an event starts it all over again through the action of disturbance.

As S. Bengi stated, for those who want to make a living from growing plants for food, you have to set down you own goals and then do what will establish the type of soil needed to do that.

Without the microorganisms, you will never achieve soil, because soil is teaming with life which gives other organisms (plants) life by providing the full range of nutrients needed by those organisms to thrive.

Redhawk
 
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Kyle Neath wrote:

How can we quantify it? How can we give people better signals that they are in fact building soil and by how much?



Water infiltration test. Tap a stove pipe or other cylinder slightly in the ground. Fill with 1 gallon of water. Time the infiltration.

You should see it increase over the years.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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I forgot to mention that I have posted a lot of soil building information and methods, you can find them here by clicking on the "Bryant Redhawk's Epic Soil Threads" link at the top of the Soil forum board. 
 
I agree. Here's the link: http://stoves2.com
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