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Measures of effective soil building  RSS feed

 
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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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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.  
 
Kyle Neath
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I think what I'm still curious about is what kind of quantitative metrics can we use to measure our impact in building soil? Let's say you had two plots, one mob grazed, and another mob grazed followed by chickens 3 days later. How could you measure the effectiveness of the chickens? Do we just not have any?

In Effective Altruism, we have a similar dilemma — how do you define "doing good"? Well, the answer (for him) is to use QUALYs — quality adjusted life year. Roughly, how much a singular action adds quality years to a person's life. This makes difficult decisions approachable. Something like, how do you decide whether it's a better idea to donate money to a local politician or donate money to a deworming organization in Africa?

I feel like we have similar problems with regards to building soil. We all agree we need to! We all agree that many different approaches do it — cover crops, composting, mob grazing, etc, etc. But how do we decide which is most effective? If we wanted to impact change among local farmers to build soil, how might we ask them to change? To me, this has to start with a way to measure building soil. What does it mean to build soil? What metrics change as we build it?
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Ah, ok, some metrics for you Kyle.

Soil needs to have a minimum of 5%-7.5% organic matter, in this case we are talking about particle sizes in the 1mm to 1mu range.
There should also be some coarse organic materials in the soil, this is comparable to your refrigerator compared to your pantry, the pantry holds long term food while the fridge holds short term food, the coarse organic matter is the pantry.
I like to see a total organics in the 20 to 25 percent range, spread out through the top 12 inches of soil.

When I do a soluble minerals test, I want to see some measureable results for 75 minerals, I don't care if some are too high or too low, just that they show up on the complete test.
This is because, when I make my adjustments to the soil biota through the use of compost extracts, the minerals will become more available to the plants I want to grow.
Those minerals that are too high per the soil test will be buffered by the microorganisms and those that too low will be boosted by the same microorganisms.

For organisms I want to see around 40% fungi, 30% bacteria and the remaining 30% spread evenly between the amoeba, nematodes and all the other predators of bacteria and fungi, I don't want to see more than 2% bad predators like the non beneficial nematodes and ciliates.
By shooting for these numbers for the microbiome, plants will do the final adjustments to the numbers they need by use of their exudates and enzymatic actions through the root system, the plants will also make slight adjustments to pH in the immediate vicinity of their roots.

The hardest part about changing a farmer's mind and getting them to try these methods is their resistance to change and that is difficult because as far back as their great grandfather, influence of the Big Ag. companies has been in full swing, promoting "modern agriculture methods" as the end all be all.

So, does this post answer some of your questions/ concerns? I hope so, but if not, I'll try again.

Redhawk
 
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I have a couple of questions for Dr Redhawk (and everyone) in relation to sea salt amendments on silty sandy and shallow aquifers such as we have.

I’ve worked through some of the soil series, but often the information doesn’t seem to relate to our situation. We feel the aquifer, a shallow lacustrine deposit under dunes with a silty sandy topsoil, one overriding concern is to avoid polluting the aquifer in the process of improving the soil. Does the salt when incorporated into the soil wash away, or in our case personage into the body of water? Most information I find on shallow aquifers in sandy deposits such as ours relate to pollution from nitrate fertilizers and/or animal waste. As you might guess, we value the shallow aquifer (we estimate 10-20 acres in size) at least as much as the overlaying agricultural potential.

Also, what tests would you suggest starting off and what is your collect method?  I’m seeing interesting variation in the types of flora and fauna coming up in our field that has has laid fallow for a couple of years since clearing. If I was to divide up the field by predominant “weeds” and saplings, it seems like I have at least 4 different fields in one.  Old 1948 aerial photos marked up with soil types show some sort of demarcation in the field that I detect in current aerials.  We will be putting in a nitrogen fixing cover crop in the spring. I’m seeing large patches of mushrooms on areas that had a layer of wood chips. Not sure what they are, but you can see the deer investigated them and left them alone. We have an almost unlimited supply of small branches and logs from the the selective logging and deadfall, as well as leaves and was planning on piling them up to rot. The small stuff I can grind up with the brush mower. There are faint remains of 100 year old stump fences that are mounds of black soil now along the edge of our field. We also have a number of springs (representative of the water table under the land) adjacent to the field the are deep ravines with think black muck that could be employed on the field.

 
Bryant RedHawk
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hau James, first thing to do is called a perk test (really a water infiltration test would be a better name) but this one is different than one for a septic tank, you will need a 3 foot piece of pipe to set on the surface of the area you want to test.
I would recommend you lay out a grid pattern with string if that is possible, then you set the pipe in each square and fill it with water, time how long it takes for the pipe to empty and write it down.
What we need to know is how long water will stay above the aquifer, the longer it will stay in the soil above the aquifer, the better the soil is for our growing purposes.
In sandy soils this usually takes less than 30 minutes( for the pipe to empty) which means the rate of travel for water is 3 feet per (amount of time you measure), from that you can calculate how long before that water is in the aquifer.

Slowing down water infiltration is usually done by adding about 10% clay to what is already there.

Now the first test I would do on your property (after laying out a grid pattern and making a sheet marked with the same grid for notes on each section) would be a jar test, this will separate out the different types of particles that make up your current soil.
It sounds like you have some spots that are already rich in organic materials, so for those spots you would check for microorganisms with a microscope and a gram stain will let you see the organisms easier for counting as well as showing how many gram positive and gram negative organisms are present.

It's great that you already have some mycelium growing in the areas with wood chips and deteriorated trees, grinding up with your brush mower is a great way to speed up the breakdown and thus make good organic matter in a shorter time span.
If deer rejected those mushrooms, they are not an edible species but they will do grand things for your soil and the plants you want to grow.
Thick black muck sounds like it could be clay with lots of organic matter suspended in the clay, that would be useful but you want to dry it out first just to get rid of most of the ciliates that will be in that muck.

The demarcation is most likely a secondary horizon that has made it to the surface I would do a jar test on each side to see the makeup of those different soils.
Composting the materials you mentioned is always a good thing.

Now to the sea salt amendment, if your soil drains fast (under 2 hours) then you would want to dissolve the salt into water before you apply it. In fast draining soils there needs to be enough organic matter and clay to hold onto the dissolved minerals so they don't reach the aquifer.
This sort of soil will mean using less sea salt, that it needs to be in solution and it may very well be that you need to do amending of the soil before you ever start using sea salt for mineralization purposes.
We never want to have our amendments reach an aquifer without being filtered first, so the prime objective should be to get the soil amended well enough that a 3 foot column of water takes 2 to 3 hours to fully soak in, that will mean there is enough organic matter and clay to filter out and hold onto the items we are trying to make available for plants and our microbiome to feed on without harming the aquifer.

Hope that helps you out. If I didn't cover something, let me know here, and I'll address any of your questions as fast as I can.

Redhawk
 
James Whitelaw
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Thank you Dr Redhawk for advice on our sandy soil! I will quickly reply now and more fully when time allows.

We have already started gridding out the field using my trusty compass (mounts on tripod). What I want to use to track notes on what we do on the field and when would be sourcing a large blackboard mounted in some sort of shelter at the entrance to the field, but pencil on paper should suffice.

The advice on perk tests (never used the pipe method, only open holes) is good advice and I will commence immediately as well as more jar tests adjacent to the perk tests and post results over the coming days.

The closest clay is actually on the land down a fifty foot ravine at the far corner of the ravine that I believe was scoured out by the retreating glacial lake (used to think it was eroded our by the tiny spring fed stream at the bottom). I’m restoring an old pony trail down into the ravine so it may be a viable source. Is there any testing on clay prior to adding it that should take place? I assume you let it dry out, pulverize and just spread it.

As to the mushrooms I am finding in the field, should I (carefully) collect them and create a slurry to spread their goodness farther afield? I’ll posted a photo I took later today.

Again, thank you!
 
Kyle Neath
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Redhawk, that's an excellent start! I appreciate your time. I'm sure I will have more questions as time goes on, I still don't feel like I've answered my questions thoroughly, but I also don't have a clear idea of all the questions in my head yet.

In my dreams, there is some scalable way to measure means of soil building such that we can better guide aspirational farmers toward soil-building. In my dreams, this results in something like "Mob Grazing: +2in/yr" or "Fall cover crops: +0.5in/yr" or "fallow field in growing season: -2in/yr". My hunch is that there are a few practices that are so extremely effective, their results outweigh the sum of the others by orders of magnitude.

I think one of my goals for next growing season will be to seek out "alternative" soil testing labs that lean more on soluble minerals, organic matter, and microbial life measurement.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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So far the studies that have been completed and those still running, are showing that mob grazing and broad spectrum pasture planting works extremely well when there is enough microbiota in the soil.
It has also been shown that even in areas that were heavily depleted, using the above setup with no other inputs will increase the soil microbiota to good levels within two years.

Currently the ideal system would be broad spectrum pasture planting combined with compost tea injections followed by mob grazing with one or two days being the time period for the mob to be grazed on any one area.
For crop lands the same would apply but once the mob had gone through, crop planting would begin.
Gabe Brown is one of the main proponents of this type of setup and he has done the work of showing that it works very well.
The one part that he has not done is the compost tea injection, this would only  result in the addition of one extra year at most though.
At that point it becomes more a matter of how fast you want the soil to fully be remediated as to which way you proceed.

Redhawk
 
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I've been gardening since the early 1980's. I've never done a soil test. I've never added bagged commercial fertilizer, and I've never added any feritilizers during the growing season. I did once add a couple of inches or manure the time I grew two crops of corn on the same plot.

If you dig in soil amendments, at least the first time you use a plot and them keep adding amendments over the years you can grow great crops. I like to use free manure, horse manure is the most readily available for me. But I don't think you need manure every year. But you need to keep improving the soil with crop residues and kitchen scraps.

I bring this up as it seems like an insurmountable task to learn to garden when you have to have a degree to read a soil test. I grow in acid clay. I'd like a PH meter. But I've always managed to grow what I want by using the crops as my gauge. If my first tomatoes show blossom end rot I add some lime and the tomatoes the rest of the year are fine. From my experience when I do get blossom end rot it's only on one or two plants so I don't feel I've lost a lot.
 
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John Duda, I totally love your post!

This is the absolute spirit of science, the basis that we humans have always had, and have only refined, rather than inventing something new.

Careful observation is what good science is all about. It is not the job of the world to explain itself to us - it is our responsibility to look, to engage, to watch, to think about, and to learn to understand.

Humans have observed nature for as long as we have been around, and that it what has ensured our survival. Before we had sophisticated instruments, we had our eyes, our sense of touch, our sense of taste. We could see changes in our crops from year to year, depending on different conditions. We may not have been able to explain why, but we could certainly observe the "what" and "how".

Science is about trying to understand reality. If you have your head in a textbook, and don't check what you are doing against your results, you are not a good scientist. You are being led by your beliefs, rather than by evidence : )

 
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