This is your down-to-earth, complete manual for achieving great gardening results with your own rich, organic soil!
How do you recognize healthy soil? How much can your existing soil be improved? What are the best amendments to use for your soil? Let Building Soilanswer your questions and be your guide on gardening from the ground up! Fertilizing, tilling, weed management, and irrigation all affect the quality of your soil. Using author Elizabeth Murphy's detailed instructions, anyone can become a successful soil-based gardener, whether you want to start a garden from scratch or improve an existing garden.
If you want methods that won't break your back, are good for the environment, and create high-yielding and beautiful gardens of all shapes and sizes, this is the book for you! Create classic landscape gardens, grow a high-yielding orchard, nurture naturally beautiful lawns, raise your household veggies, or run a profitable farm. A soil-based approach allows you to see not just the plants, but the living system that grows them. Soil-building practices promote more ecologically friendly gardening by reducing fertilizer and pesticide use, sequestering greenhouse gases, and increasing overall garden productivity.
Building Soil is a simple book full of practical, up-to-date information about building healthy soils. Simple methods perfect for the home gardener's use put healthy, organic soil within everyone's reach. You don't need a degree in soil management to understand this book; you only need a yard or garden and the desire to improve it at the most basic level.
One of the biggest threats to the growing of crops today is the depletion of soils. The so-called Green Revolution called for the addition of vast quantities of nitrogen (using the energy-intensive Haber Process, which is thus a major driver of climate change), phosphorus (using finite quantities of phosphate rock) and potassium. Meanwhile the soil has been stripped of the micronutrients that plants also require for effective growth and reproduction, and that provide the basis for the diets of anything eating those plants.
I once ended up in an argument with a farmer who just couldn't see that, if you put livestock on a piece of land, and then remove those livestock after they have grazed it, perhaps you will end up with faster growth of plants next year as a result of making some nutrients biologically available, but you will eventually strip the soil of micronutrients – unless, of course, you bring in feed from elsewhere, which simply transfers the problem from your field to someone else's.
I read this book in the hope that it would give me some pointers to stabilising the process of soil depletion, and perhaps, as the title promises, building soils up while producing food. The book is written by someone who has both gardened and studied soils scientifically, and I had high hopes for it. She bases this on the mimicry of nature, which makes a great deal of sense, and is entirely consistent with permaculture principles.
She begins with a summary of the constituents and structure of soil, which is probably going to be familiar to most permies, and I found little to no useful new information in this chapter.
Chapter 2 discusses soil organic matter and just how critical it is to the system. Again, it's a good introduction, but it's unlikely to teach the well-read permie anything new.
Chapter 3 is somewhat more useful, and discusses soil testing and the macro- and micronutrients in the soil, as well as measuring and, if necessary remedying, soil pH. There is also a brief discussion of environmental soil testing, for cases where you suspect your soil may have been contaminated by toxins.
Chapter 4 discusses organic amendments to soils, to improve tilth, add nutrients and so on. There are many forms of organic matter, and which ones you use will depend on availability and what you want to achieve. There is an implicit warning in here about hugelkultur, in that all that the bacteria decomposing that high-carbon wood will strip nitrogen from the surrounding soil, so you need a lot of high-nitrogen amendments to balance this. This is a problem whenever you use high-carbon soil amendments. This is a mistake I've made. There is a long and potentially useful discussion about the benefits and methods of the use of cover crops and composting in place, which will probably be of most use on a small scale. There are good primers on sheet mulching and composting, among other things. Of course, there are whole books on composting, but this will give you the essentials.
Chapter 5 covers fertilisers, amendments that can be added when you organic material just isn't enough. Some are organic, some inorganic, with varying degrees of sustainability. Addressing the question of whether or not a Permie should be using these things is perhaps a subject for another discussion (I tend to look at these things on a case-by-case basis: fishmeal, for example, is clearly not sustainable; nor, when you come down to it, is the widespread use of any animal byproduct). The chapter contains useful tables on your various options, and this may prove to be among the most useful parts of this book for me. This is where comparing the results of your soil tests with the actual nutrient needs for plants is useful, and the book shows how to make these calculations. It's pretty straightforward, and uses no more than some simple arithmetic. Finally, it talks about how to apply those fertilisers.
Chapter 6 discusses mulching, good mulches to use and in what ways. This includes living mulches – groundcovers, intercrops and green manures. This ties in to watering and irrigation. Again, most of us with much practice in the garden won't learn much, but it is a good introduction.
Chapter 7 is an attempt to address gardening holistically – when to till and when not to, with more on sheet mulching. Chapter 7 also contains some information on garden planning. Again, there are whole books on this, so it's no more than an overview. The author has clearly been influenced by permaculture principles and it particularly shows here, but this is not a permaculture book.
In conclusion, this is not a bad book. There is useful material in here, but for much of it you would do better with a specialist book on garden design or something specifically on composting. It is certainly a useful introduction, and for someone just starting out it would have clear value, but for me it just doesn't cover enough in sufficient detail to make it an important contribution to the library. It might well be something I pick up occasionally when I want to remedy a particular problem, but no more than that.