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Source: Amazon.com

Summary

A Soil Owner’s Manual: Restoring and Maintaining Soil Health, is about restoring the capacity of your soil to perform all the functions it was intended to perform. This book is not another fanciful guide on how to continuously manipulate and amend your soil to try and keep it productive. This book will change the way you think about and manage your soil. It may even change your life. If you are interested in solving the problem of dysfunctional soil and successfully addressing the symptoms of soil erosion, water runoff, nutrient deficiencies, compaction, soil crusting, weeds, insect pests, plant diseases, and water pollution, or simply wish to grow healthy vegetables in your family garden, then this book is for you. Soil health pioneer Jon Stika, describes in simple terms how you can bring your soil back to its full productive potential by understanding and applying the principles that built your soil in the first place. Understanding how the soil functions is critical to reducing the reliance on expensive inputs to maintain yields. Working with, instead of against, the processes that naturally govern the soil can increase profitability and restore the soil to health. Restoring soil health can proactively solve natural resource issues before regulations are imposed that will merely address the symptoms. This book will lead you through the basic biology and guiding principles that will allow you to assess and restore your soil. It is part of a movement currently underway in agriculture that is working to restore what has been lost. A Soil Owner’s Manual: Restoring and Maintaining Soil Health will give you the opportunity to be part of this movement. Restoring soil health is restoring hope in the future of agriculture, from large farm fields and pastures, down to your own vegetable or flower garden.

About the Author: Jon Stika draws on his lifelong experience with the soil as a farmer, dairyman, integrated pest management specialist, gardener, soil scientist, agronomist, cartographer, horticulturalist, and soil health instructor, to help you understand how the soil operates as a living system. He is the 2014 recipient of the Legacy of Conservation Award from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, 2014 United States Zero Till Non-Farmer of the Year Award winner from the Manitoba-North Dakota Zero Tillage Farmers Association, 2002 & 2014 Professional Award winner from the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts and 2006 Fellow Award winner from the Soil & Water Conservation Society for his work in writing and teaching about soil health.

Where to get it?

Amazon
UnderstandingAg
Audible
Barnes and Nobles

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COMMENTS:
 
master steward
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I give this book 10 out of 10 acorns

This book was a delight to read. Short, at under 100 pages, but it is condensed with information. Of all the books on soil I've read, I think this one qualifies as the Cliff's Notes version of how to heal and nurture soil. It's technical enough but written so anyone can understand it. I highly recommend this book to anyone new to the world of soil health that wants to learn some easy to understand fundamentals on what needs to be done to improve their soil.
 
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I give this book 10 out of 10 acorns.

The idea behind “A Soil Owner’s Manual” is that if we can learn to understand the way that soil life functions, we can find ways to nurture it, and this soil life then nurtures the plants and livestock that rely on it.

Similar to owning a piece of machinery without an owners manual, many people caring for soils have no idea how the soil functions, and are just making guesses and tinkering with things and seeing what works, rather than trying to understand how the soil functions, and how we can help it to function.

For too long there has been an approach to farming and gardening that has treated the soil as a blank canvas ready to have N, P and K thrown at it, and to assume that these nutrients directly feed the plant. “A Soil Owner’s Manual” shows us how this current conventional approach is actually interfering with the soil’s ability to provide food for the plants.

The soil and the plants form a symbiotic relationship, one of the best ways we can nurture soil life is to allow to have living plant cover on the soil for as long as possible. Leaving the plant residues in place as mulch will also help.

The soil knows how to function on its own. Plants and soil are interacting, and feeding each other, but when we come along and disturb things, this is when problems are happening - can we have beneficial interactions with the soil, where we allow it to thrive, while feeding ourselves? "A Soil Owner's Manual" gives us lots of ideas on how to do this.

If all the nitrogen that a crop needs is added to the soil when it’s planted, as is done with conventional agriculture, the plants and soil microbes will use the nitrogen without interacting with each other. Once the initial nitrogen dries up, the plants suffer delays as it now has to build the association with the soil that should have been there from the start. This interaction also happens with phosphorus.

The four rules of caring for the soil, in “A Soil Owner’s Manual” are:
Disturbing the soil less
Growing a greater diversity of plants
Keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible
Keeping the soil covered by living plants or dead ones at all times

A soil’s water holding capacity, temperature, and oxygen level are critical to life in the soil. Too much oxygen, as is introduced by tilling, is not good for the soil, but a small amount of oxygen will stimulate soil life - I wonder if chisel ploughing and broadforking are good ways to do this?

This book covers both broadacre and small garden approaches to caring for soil. It’s written in a way that is encouraging for conventional farmers, as well as homesteaders and gardeners. A great example for large farms is given with Gabe Brown’s farm:

The Browns’ have changed their model of production from a focus on crop yield to one of restoring soil health by integrating the production of cattle and crops together. After a series of setbacks while attempting to follow the standard spring wheat production model, Gabe and Paul realized that by focusing on the soil first, their costs of production fell and their ranch’s resiliency to the extremes of weather increased. Extreme dry years and wet years did not significantly affect their ability to be both productive and profitable. During a particularly dry year, one of the Browns’ neighbors implored them to remove bales of hay from a field that was visible from the highway because he was trying to make a case for a drought declaration and assistance from the government. Because of the capacity of the Browns’ soil to capture and store water, they had much greater production than anyone else in the vicinity. This begs the question, was the drought caused by lower than normal precipitation in the area, or the lack of soil health and the capacity of the soil to store and supply water to the plants?



I thought this example was amazing to read about. If one farm can become drought-proof in this way, imagine what would happen if this approach was adopted by a lot more farms…

When erosion happens on conventional farms, it’s often seen as inevitable. On farms which the author saw that hadn’t been tilled (in the same areas as the tilled farms), there were no signs of erosion, showing that the tilled soils with their poor structure were not able to infiltrate water - it was not the runoff that was the problem, this is just a symptom of a bad soil structure.

This book shows us how healthy soil is supposed to function. A great help for learning if we’re doing the right things or not!

Casual observation of a healthy soil should reveal a dark color from organic matter, arthropods (insects and their cousins) and hopefully, earthworms. The soil should have stable aggregates, yet be easy to dig into with hand or shovel. Plant roots should grow straight down and throughout the soil. There should be many pores of various sizes with little or no evidence of compacted horizontal layering. You should be able to easily break apart healthy soil with your fingers.



A healthy soil should perform the basic roles of water cycling, nutrient cycling, and physical support. It should perform all of these while supporting a diversity of life that will facilitate its continued capacity to function.



Find a location in your area where the soil has never been cleared of native vegetation or tilled. Look at that soil in its native condition to get an idea what a functioning soil should look and act like



Once we recognize soil organisms as the drivers of soil health, we understand that the most important element in soil nutrient cycling is not nitrogen, phosphorous or potassium, but carbon.



Carbon enters the soil through living plant cover. It’s important to keep the soil covered with living plants as much as possible, as the plants keep the soil life fed.

The soil is a living system, not a dead pile of dirt, treating it as a living system will help it to thrive.

The life in the soil is what feeds the plants. There is plenty of nitrogen and other elements already around, and when plants are suffering from a nutrient deficiency, they suffering from a deficiency in the soil life that would normally feed these nutrients to the plants.

Soil organic matter often makes up less than 5% of the soil by weight, but controls 90% of soil functions essential for plant growth. As soil organic matter increases from 1% by weight to 3% by weight, the water holding capacity of the soil doubles.



The easiest source of food for soil microbes is the sugar exuded through the roots of living plants. The next easiest food source is dead plant roots. Followed by above-ground crop residues such as straw, chaff, husks, stalks, flowers, and leaves. When root exudates, dead roots, or plant residues are not available, soil microbes will feed on existing soil organic matter.



I have read arguments against mulching in spring in my climate, as it is said to prevent the soil from warming up, but whenever I look at the soil, it always looks and smells much more alive in the mulched areas. It was interesting to read in “A Soil Owners Manual” that the reason for soil being slow to warm up in spring is from it being compacted and saturated with water, not because of mulch! This could be one big reason why some people are very anti-mulching and others say it works well for them.

When legumes and grasses are mixed together in a pasture, legumes fix the nitrogen, which the fungi in the soil then shares with the grasses. The grasses accumulate phosphorous and the soil fungi then share that back with the legumes. Brassicas have strong root systems that open pathways deep in the soil. Each element in this pasture polyculture is nurturing other elements, and providing the soil life with a varied diet.

"A Soil Owner's Manual" also coveres how to restore the health of our soil - this is essentially looking to nature and how nature manages soils, and mimicing that by having undisturbed soil covered with plants or mulch.

The diversity of plants grown in the soil determines the diversity of the diet received by the organisms that live in the soil



Research regarding plant diversity (Tilman et. al. 2006) suggests that as few as five different species of plants can have a tremendous impact on total plant biomass production.



Plant diversity helps to increase resilience to drought. One experiment done when only 1.8” of rain fell from April to July found that the single-species plots had all died, but the polyculture plot of millet, cowpea, sunflower, soy, turnip, and radish was green.

Soil should always be covered by growing plants and/or their residues, and therefore, rarely be visible from above. This is true regardless of land use (crop, hay, pasture, forest, range or garden).



Soil cover, as mulch or as living plants, conserves moisture, intercepts the impact of raindrops, suppresses weeds, and provides habitat for some of the soil life.

To how much of our soil needs to be covered, Jon Stika’s observation is that 65% is the minimum required to limit evaporation. This would allow for some garden crops to be direct-seeded, with rows of mulch between small cleared areas for the seeds. It is helpful to read this, as often books have an “all or nothing” approach, where a particular author will hate mulch and want it nowhere near the garden, or love it and want it everywhere, making it difficult to grow carrots!

As the years pass, soil managed under a system that maintains soil cover with a diverse crop rotation becomes more biologically active, cycling nutrients, building organic matter and even warming the soil through increased respiration



The book is written in a way that will appeal to both broadacre farmers, and small-scale gardeners. There are many reasons why it’s a good idea to understand soil and work with nature instead of against it, and it makes economic sense, so I hope more farmers will read this book and apply what they’ve learned to their land.

Every acre of healthy soil has the equivalent weight of two or more cow’s worth of microorganisms living in the soil. And like all livestock, they need to be fed. This is why it is vital that each field host a diversity of plants that occupies the soil with living roots and covers it from above



Leaving a field bare or fallowed means the underground herd of microbes will not be fed and the soil functions dependent on those organisms will decline accordingly.



The types of crop residues and mulch left on the soil will impact how the soil life feeds on it. Anything with a carbon to nitrogen ratio greater than 24:1 will cause the soil life to use nitrogen from the soil to digest it. Anything with a lower carbon to nitrogen ratio will mean that the soil life leaves excess nitrogen in the soil, which is then available to growing plants.

Knowing this ratio can help crop farmers to come up with cover crops to sow, for example, wheat straw has a carbon to nitrogen ration of 80:1, sowing hairy vetch with a ratio of 11:1 helps to balance out the carbon to nitrogen ratio.

Tillage encourages weed seeds. After 3-5 years of no-tilling, the weed pressure declines a lot. Flame weeders, grazing by livestock, and manual pulling of individual weeds can be done in the meantime. Large-scale hoeing is considered a form of tillage, so pulling out individual plants will do a lot more towards reducing weed pressure.

Planting cover crops after cropping and adding livestock to graze it is great for the soil - it increases the amount of time the soil has with living plant cover, and when the plants are grazed, they produce more root exodates to feed the soil. The soil is also fed by the trampled residues, and the manure and urine of the animals. It is important to observe that the animals aren’t in the field for too long, or they might compact the soil.

Hay production is improved by alternating fields between grazing and hay, so that the hayfield soil can be fed by animals. Another way to improve the soil of hay fields is to feed the animals their hay on that field.

There are a few ways to test for soil quality, the first is to smell it, and details are given for what to look out for and what each type of smell means. Another soil quality test is done by drying out a sample of soil completely and observing how it behaves once it’s saturated. These are both tests that can be done for free, at home, giving all of us the ability to regularly test the soil and notice whether it’s improving or not.

Reading this book gave me a much better understanding of soil, and how to help it thrive on my homestead. I would recommend this book to anyone that grows anything. And I hope lots of farmers read it.
 
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Dirt! One of my favorite topics.  

I just ordered the book and plumped Jon Stika's author page on LibraryThing, where I mostly hang out.

Here is his Twitter account: https://twitter.com/humusphysicus?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor with timely related materials.
 
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I give this book 10 out of 10 acorns.

I was one of the fortunate winner's of this book for a Permies book giveaway. It's not a very big book, only 88 pages, but it's an extremely important book. It lays out the principles of improving soil health and their application clearly, logically, and to the point. No fluff, just facts.

Chapter 1: What is Soil Health and Why Should I Care?

As a lifelong organic gardener, I thought I had a handle on soil health. What I didn't realize was that, even though organic gardening is an improvement over industrialized chemical farming, it still follows the wrong paradigm. This chapter helps the reader understand nature's paradigm by explaining the five functions of the soil, why we don't need to feed the soil, and why a new fundamental understanding of soil is needed.

Chapter 2: What's Wrong With My Soil the Way It Is?

Explains why most soil in the United States (and the world) is dysfunctional. Explains how tilling the soil damages the soil ecosystem.

Chapter 3: How Is Healthy Soil Supposed to Function?

We're all familiar with dysfunctional soil. The problem is that it is so familiar, that its dysfunctional state is now considered "normal." For example, my highly deficient compact red clay soil is considered normal for the southeastern U.S. This chapter explains why that is a fallacy. It defines healthy soil by describing properly functioning soil. Discusses water cycling, nutrient cycling, physical support, and biodiversity.

Chapter 4: Biology of the Soil

This quote from chapter 4 says it better than I could,

"Soil microbiologists have determined that roughly 90% of the functions we expect soil to perform are biologically driven . . . Appreciating soil biology and all that it does is essential to improving soil health and becoming an economically and environmentally sustainable producer."


Clue: soil biology is not just about earthworms! This chapter defines the Soil Food Web (SFW), describes the inhabitants that populate this web, how they function, and how they are fed.

Chapter 5: How Do I Restore the Health of My Soil?

"If the soil is managed with an understanding of the habitat requirements for the SFW, the capacity of the soil to function can be restored."


This chapter details the keys to restoring soil health and how to make them work for you. I now understand why I have weeds! And I now know what to do about them. Also explains how the carbon:nitrogen ratio of cover crops and mulch affects soil microorganisms. Very useful information. Includes specifics for tailoring the principles of healthy soil to crop land, hay growing, pasture, rangeland, woodlands, and your yard, garden, orchard, or vineyard.

Chapter 6: Goals and Tools

Explains how understanding healthy, fully functional soil can help you choose the best tools and equipment to meet your goals.

Chapter 7: How Will I Know If My Soil Health is Improving?

This is an important question! Explains three simple, easy-to-do tests to get you started and help you monitor progress. Also discusses more sophisticated lab tests that can help measure the state of the soil's biologic activity.

The book includes an appendix listing useful soil resources and a chart of the C:N ratios of soil mulches and cover crops. Explains how to choose these based on your goals. A glossary and bibliography complete the book.

The only thing that's missing is an index. I have a paperback copy, so no search feature. But this is the kind of book I will search through and refer to often. Even so, it's definitely a 10-acorn addition to any permaculture or homestead library.
 
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