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Ten Principles of Healthy, Fertile, Resilient Soil

 
pollinator
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Here is a handout I created for the course I teach on permaculture and regenerative agriculture.  I wanted to create something simple and memorable: a 10 commandments sort of list.  Feel free to use it if you find it useful.



Ten Principles of Healthy, Fertile, Resilient Soil

1. Carbon is the basis for soil health.

Regenerative agriculture is driven by the primary goal of increasing carbon in the soil through naturally occurring processes (or mimicking natural processes).  In natural ecosystems (forests, prairies, savannah systems), carbon is cycled down into the soil profile to feed soil biology and create topsoil.  We regenerate denuded soils by accelerating these carbon cycles and natural systems.

2.  Soil carbon feeds microbes, captures nutrients and holds water.

Without soil carbon, microbial life (bacteria and fungi) will not thrive in your soil.  The more carbon in your soil, the greater the number of microbes you have working in concert with plant roots.  Soil carbon grabs ahold of nutrients rather than let them wash away, and serves as a giant sponge to holds water within the soil profile.  Inversely, synthetic fertilizers and other chemical inputs kill soil biology (bacteria and fungi) which leads to a collapse in the carbon cycle.

3.  Building topsoil is a biological process.

Natural ecosystems are constantly adding carbon to the soil.  We seek to mimic these natural processes in our soil management.
I.  Plant roots pump liquid carbon down into the soil in the form of root exudate( sugars and starches) to feed the bacteria and fungi that surround the root zone.  50-70% of a plant’s energy goes to this because plants depend on the microbes these sugars attract and feed.
II.  When plants die, their roots remain in the ground.  In a low oxygen environment, they decompose slowly, and add their biomass to the soil.
III.  Worms and biota feed on plant material (both on the soil surface as well as below ground) and then distribute that carbon down throughout the soil profile.
IV.  Compost is king.  Use as a soil amendment or a mulch on the soil surface.  No carbon should ever leave your system if possible.  Garden and yard waste, food scraps, animal bedding and manure, and even house wastes (like paper and cardboard) should all be turned into compost.  Compost is rich in nutrients like N, K & P, but more important, is teeming with microbial life.  Compost is a living soil amendment, adding billions of bacteria and microbes in every handful.

4.  Armor the soil surface with biomass.

Mulch, mulch, mulch, and then mulch some more.  In nature, every leaf drops to the soil below to create a natural blanket on the soil surface.  Every broken stick or plant that dies, every pile of manure that an animal leaves behind, every trampled branch or stem, and ultimately, even dead bugs, birds and animals fall to the soil to nourish it.  Either naturally or by bringing in bio mass like wood chips, we keep a layer of armor on the soil at all times.

5.  Keep a living root in the ground always.

Whether we are growing veggies, tree crops, grains or a cover crop, we seek to have something growing in our soil for as many months as possible.  Often this will mean planting 3 or even 4 different times a year to assure that something is always growing.  If there is no living root, we waste the sun’s energy and are not pumping root exudates into the soil to feed the microbiology.

6.  Minimize or eliminate tillage.

When soil is tilled, soil aggregation is destroyed (thereby significantly decreasing infiltration of water and nutrients).  Fungal networks are shredded and destroyed.  Massive amounts of oxygen is introduced into the soil profile which in turn artificially stimulates a microbial bloom that consumes soil carbon.  While a cleanly plowed field or freshly tilled garden looks nice, and in the short term appears to create light fluffy soil, once the natural biotic “glues” that hold the aggregates are destroyed and once the soil carbon has been consumed, the soil will compress and become hard and lifeless.


7.  Capture every ray of sunlight.

Nature is solar powered.  Sunlight is free, abundant, and the only energy source we need.  If there are no plants to capture and photosynthesize the sunlight, we waste this precious resource.  Conversely, sunlight falling on bare soil will kill soil life by irradiating the microbes, heating the soil and evaporating moisture.  Planting a diverse mix of broadleaf plants, grasses, and trees will capture and convert as much energy as possible while protecting the soil below.

8.  Capture and hold every drop of water.

Soils that are carbon rich are a giant sponge to infiltrate and hold tremendous amounts of water.  Rain events are nitrogen events: rain water is nutrient dense (whereas city water has chlorine and other chemicals).  By mulching, digging swales, hugelkulture and using other water harvesting techniques, we assure that water does not run off our soil, nor evaporate carelessly.

9.  Plant diversity is critical.

Its not enough to just have a living root in the soil, but because every plant has a different chemical signature in their root exudates, we intermix a wide variety of plants in our gardens and agricultural systems.  Multi-species cover crops, plant guilds, intercropping, crop rotation and even letting weeds grow are all ways to assure that a wide diversity of plants are living and dying on our land, each contributing their unique contribution to biodiversity and microbial soil health.  Attracting and sustaining diverse insect and bird populations requires a bio diverse ecosystem.

10.  Animal integration.

In natural ecosystems, grazers, predators, birds, bugs and even humans all make a contribution to soil health.  Soil biology takes on complexity and increases fertility when animals are introduced into your growing systems.  Animals add their urine and poop, disturb of the soil, trample biomass down onto the soil surface to produce mulch, stimulate plant growth through grazing, and contribute significantly through the complex processes that occur in their digestive tract.  They turn garden waste, plants and weeds into fertilizer, eggs and meat.

 
Marco Banks
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I should note that I'm borrowing some of these principles from Gabe Browne.  I recently got his new book and enjoyed it a great deal.  The principles he lists are not new (if you've spent any time watching his numerous videos on YouTube) but are golden rules for soil health.  I've expanded them and added a few of my own.

Hat tip to Gabe.
 
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Nicely done Marco, Brava, all are excellent points and methods to achieve the main goal of all soil building.

But you forgot to mention the one negative effect that is most important and a major reason to follow your guide lines.
That free carbon in soil will gas off to the atmosphere as CO2, this is the main reason to always have the ground covered in some manner and living plants growing all the time.
When plant matter decays, CO2 is one of the natural by products of the decay process, so we need a way to recapture that CO2 before it can rise to the stratosphere and cause more warming effects on the planet surface.
 
pollinator
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Marco,  I am covering my grass yard with a thick layer of wood chips. Is there something I can plant into the chips to help the soil?  I have many fruit trees but nothing in between.
 
Marco Banks
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Hey Dennis,

Initially, it's tough to plant directly into wood chips if they are pretty deep.  Right now, I've got about 18 inches of chips laid down in the back corner of my orchard -- there's no way I can plant in that for a couple of months until it breaks down.  

Sometimes I'll rake the chips back and create rows where I can plant seeds into the soil.  Once stuff comes up, its easy enough to kick the mulch back against the growing plants.  Or you can rake the mulch back into a pile, and then plant a cover crop in the bare soil, and then throw a light layer (like, maybe an inch) of chips on top of the newly seeded bed.  The seeds should push their way up through that thin layer of chips.  

I tend to put the chips down really heavy, wet them down, encourage the decomposition (the leaves break down very quickly), and then drop things like tomatoes into small holes that I punch down through the mulch.  Once a tomato plant it 5 or 6 feet tall, you hardly notice the chips on the ground.  Sunflowers, peppers, okra . . . anything tall works with this method.  Its always a matter of patience and balance -- wanting to put as much biomass down as you can, while at the same time wanting to grow plants as quickly as possible.  

Best of luck.

m
 
Dennis Bangham
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Thanks Marco.  Learning patience is on my list of things to learn.
 
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