The Invisible Glory of Dirt

What Happened to All the Dirt?

The new house we were moving into was in a section of town that was being carved out of native prairie. The neighborhood was located on a large (mostly) limestone plateau that looked out over the city below. I was excited. It was a large lot for a new subdivision. It was flat, and we had big plans for all that space. The final thing to happen before we moved in was for the contractor to grade the yard and lay down the sod. We had reserved a chunk in the very back for what would become our vegetable and flower garden. The rest they scraped and sodded. They said they had to do it so that we’d have a nice flat lawn. Our plan included flower beds surrounding the house and a stone patio with beds around that as well.

We moved in the fall, so when spring rolled around, we were ready, with shovels in hand, to create our flower beds. We pierced the ground with our shovels only to discover rock and clay hiding just below the surface. This was not the dark, rich soil we had envisioned. Our plants would not grow in this! Then we remembered; the native topsoil, teaming with living microorganisms, that was there originally had been scrapped away by those developing our neighborhood and by our builder as he leveled our lot.

Developing Good Dirt

At the time, we didn’t know a lot about dirt, but we knew enough to know the bulbs, flowering bushes, and perennials we had planned to put there weren’t going to thrive in rocky, clay soil.

So we decided to go about changing our dirt. First we carved the outlines of our beds. Next we removed all the dirt down about two feet. Truckloads of good, black dirt, compost, manure, and sand were dumped in tall piles on the end our driveway. We mixed these together, including some of the original dirt. Then we refilled all of our soon-to-be flowerbeds and vegetable garden with this new mixture.

All this work paid off in spades. We were rewarded with abundance in flowers, vegetables, and fruits. Though we didn’t know why exactly our plants thrived in healthy dirt, we saw the delicious and beautiful results.

The Microscopic World of Soil

Only relatively recently has the scientific community begun to put together all the many parts of what goes on under the ground in our soil. Scientists have historically thought that soil was made up of clay, sand, silt, and dead plant material. They didn’t know that in healthy soil the organic matter is almost completely made up of living and dead microbes. They are just beginning to understand how critical these microbes are to soil health and thus to plant health, and because we eat plants or eat animals that eat plants, to people health.

Life in the soil is mostly microscopic. What cannot be seen has not been understood. Now thanks to advances in scientific research, we are beginning to get a grasp on the role of bacteria, viruses, fungi, protists, archea, etc. The vast majority of these are extremely beneficial and essential to plant health.

Plant roots and the microorganisms that surround them have a mutually beneficial relationship. In a myriad of ways, this symbiosis makes our plants healthier. They have bigger root systems, and they have a much higher immunity to diseases. It has been shown they not only produce more fruits and vegetables, but those yields contain higher amounts of nutrients compared to plants grown in poor soil.

Creating Healthy Dirt

This begs the question, how can we get the healthiest soil possible? Of course, that is what we all want, right? Our solution over the past century has been to fertilize. If plants and soil need nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, let’s just give it to them. And we have … in abundance. The problem is that putting these minerals on the soil does not create healthy, living soil the plants need. Yes, the plants can grow large, but they are not growing better. They do not have the immunity to disease. They are not able to take advantage of the millions of organisms in the soil that make it possible for them to absorb necessary nutrients. Healthy soil absorbs and holds onto moisture better, making for more water for the plants as well as less runoff.

I liken it to the old adage, “Give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.” Creating good soil is providing plants with the all the tools at nature’s disposal to flourish.

Enriching Your Soil

Healthy soil can be created almost anywhere by thinking through what you have at your disposal and faithfully applying it to your yard and garden.

It’s not unlike a recipe in your kitchen. Laying down compost and dried leaves in the fall (especially oak) grass clippings, wood mulch, compost tea, aged manure, even things like coffee grounds or fish emulsion. The more you add, the more food there is for the microorganisms to eat. This healthy soil makes for plants that can better fight off pests and diseases while bearing more produce.

As the saying goes, “We are what we eat.” And as it turns out, so are plants.

Spring is the perfect time to start creating great soil. Your landscapes are fairly bare, making it much easier to work with your soil. I would recommend just laying everything on the top of the ground. Don’t work it in. Trust me, the microbes will know where to find the food they need. It turns out the underground is like a microscopic city with infrastructure, pathways, and means of communication all set up. When we till, we destroy these established networks. Then it takes time to set it all back up again.

Soil experts and farmers around the world are only beginning to understand this and put into practice “no till” methods of farming. Farmers that practice just this one thing are seeing greater crops yields (as well as lower expenses because they are not spending the time and money it takes to till).

Try this: put away your chemicals, and instead feed your soil. Let’s see where this takes your yard and garden.
Soil is one of earth’s greatest assets, so let’s do what we can to make it better. The funny thing is, when we improve it, it will improve us.

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