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What is Living Soil?

image of grass with roots

Trees often have as much or more growing under the ground as we can see on top. Going along with that, for a tree to be healthy, the soil needs to support it. The more healthy and living that soil becomes, the more the trees, bushes, vines, vegetables and herbs we grow thrive. Good living soil becomes like a giant restaurant for plants.

In healthy soil, fungal and bacterial networks prevent nutrients from washing away and keep them close and available to the plant roots. They also nurture beneficial nematodes and protozoa while releasing nutrients when needed. When we use chemical fertilizers, however, only a small amount reaches the rhizosphere where the plants can use them while most drain through the soil where they waste your money and pollute the groundwater. They also tend to kill or at least greatly diminish the living soil microorganisms, earthworms, and beneficial insects.

yin yang with tree and roots

A key to Regenerative Water Use, the beneficial microbes and special fungi like mycorrhizae form webs around plant roots that protect them from the harmful kinds of fungi and microbes and even trap pathogens. They also develop a kind of partnership with roots which produce a kind of "plant sweat" that changes with the kind of nutrients the plants most need and this is exchanged with the fungi and bacteria for what the plants need most. This almost magical support for plants, however, is destroyed by salt-based nutrients, insecticides, and disease-control contamination. These soil-devastating products have an almost genocidal effect on good, living soil and create a dependence on external support. It's like intentionally making our plants addicted to their version of heroin. The more we use these poisons that kill the living soil, the more beneficial microbes die and the more dependent the plants become on external resources.

This gradual weakening of soil on farms leads to ever-increasing costs for more and more fertilizers, pest and disease-control substances as well as progressively declining harvests and farm profitability. It then leads to crop failures, aridification, and finally desertification. After a trip to the US, Fukuoka described how American farmers were making less farming 500-700 acre farms than Japanese farmers were making with only 3-5 acres. See our article, Regenerative Agriculture.

Our common practices of plowing and turning the ground over also become enemies of this natural, living soil process. They cut through these protective, nourishing networks. It also harms the important oxygen/water and capillary capacity of healthy, living soil. Good earth tends to have high porosity, a roughly equal balance of water and air. This facilitates movement of water and nutrients when needed. These common but detrimental gardening and farming practices continue to degrade our farm-soil health.

Almost 100 years ago, Masanobu Fukuoka began experimenting with the alternative farming techniques that eventually evolved into the Living Soil approach. A trained microbiologist, he called this approach "No-Till Natural Farming" and worked with the UN applying it to their efforts of preventing desertification. He also wrote popular books, traveled the world giving lectures, and worked on projects in Africa, South America, India, Europe, and the Far East. He describes and demonstrates how much this approach improves profitability, production, and benefit to the environment. Beyond this, he pictures and exemplifies how much personal happiness, mental health, appreciation and reverence for nature naturally grow from this approach to farming.

Permaculture's Founder-Father, Bill Mollison, knew Fukuoka and further popularized many of his ideas. From Arctic to Equatorial locations, he designed and helped create regenerative agriculture projects for farmers as diverse as African tribal women and US urban gardeners, encompassing Pacific islanders and European backyard growers. He championed not only many of Fukuoka’s methods, but also his understanding of sustainable gardening as a foundation for more healthy and happy human populations. See our article, Nature as Best Friend.

With a focus more on creating healthy, living soil rather than only on the crop yield, ideal soil moistures and irrigation rise in importance. Beneficial microbes, earthworms, nematodes, and the entire community of beneficial microorganisms depend on good soil moisture levels. If the soil gets either too wet or too dry and remains that way, these microorganisms either go dormant or die. The more sand/perlite/silt in the soil, the less clay and humus, the more often the soil needs watering and the more challenging good irrigation becomes. Our Slow Water blog post includes this quote: "The slower you water, the deeper it goes. The deeper the water goes, the deeper the roots go. The deeper the roots go, the more access plants have to moisture and nutrients, the stronger and more healthy they become, and the more resistant to high winds, drought, and pests." On the other side of this balance, although it’s harder to detect, over-watering may have a more negative effect. Although it hurts plant health and lowers yields, it often gives no external indication that there’s a problem.

Keeping a good moisture level in the soil also has many environmental benefits. For example, it can lower ambient air temperature, easing or preventing heat waves. See our article, Drier Soil = Hotter Air. This and similar ways of re-envisioning our approach to irrigation also have promise for contributing major support to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals: What Individuals, Families, and Small Businesses Can Do.

green spaces infographic
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