Building healthy soil explained in a single photo

jerusalem artichoke in soil - tyrant farms
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Building healthy soil is critical for growing healthy food and healthy people. This single soil building photo says a thousand words! Don’t worry, we’ll use words to explain it…

Healthy Soil Is Crucial to a Healthy World (and healthy people)

We haven’t plowed or tilled our soil in many years, yet our soil grows healthier every day. According to the rules of industrial agriculture or conventional farming, this should be impossible. So, how are we doing it? Simple: we mimic nature.

As we’ve learned more about how soil works, our work in the garden has been drastically reduced. We never plow. We almost never pull weeds or water and fertilize our plants. When we do use fertility-boosting inputs, it’s always with natural organic materials (compost, worm castings, leaves, wood chips, green mulch, etc) that our soil organisms know how to break down, not synthetic fertilizers that have been shown to *damage long-term soil health.

(*Read more about how synthetic nitrogen fertilizer harms your soil.)

Try to Be a Studious Observer of Nature’s Systems

jerusalem artichoke in soil - tyrant farms

Click image to enlarge. Soil profile showing Jerusalem artichoke growing in young, no-till mulched garden bed. 

We took this photo back in April and it’s been a great teacher ever since. We were out pulling young Jerusalem Artichoke (aka sunchokes) plants that were spreading into one of our paths. The Tyrant noticed one of the sunchokes coming up right next to a large rock, so she issued the order for me to pull back the rock to have a look.

Wow, did we get a nice surprise!

In the image, you can see a lot of neat interactions taking place within the soil system. Here are a few of our observations:

1. Roots 

You can see the tuber and root structure of the young plant “in situ,” which is a rare treat. A nice soil profile presents itself for closer inspection. 

2. Self-Building Soil

This area started off as the typical Appalachian compacted red clay. We began top-dressing this particular area about two years ago with leaves and wood chips, and you can see the stratification of rich, black top soil relative to the red clay soil base below it.

It’s amazing how quickly you can build up rich soil (without plowing), or more accurately how quickly your soil food web can build good soil when it’s fed with organic matter that it knows how to “eat”.

3. Soil Structure

The soil is rich and full of organic matter, yet light and porous. This structure allows the soil to “breath,” for optimal water absorption and for plants’ root systems to penetrate to find nutrients.

Had we plowed in the mulch rather than laying it on the surface (top-dressing), we would have disrupted the soil systems and organism that did the “plowing” for us. We would have also caused the soil to be temporarily depleted of nitrogen as these organisms tried to break down the carbon-rich material.

However, by top-dressing the soil with mulch, the soil food web did the work for us while slowly increasing soil nitrogen.

4. Earthworm Workers 

Contrary to popular belief, there are some native North American earthworms. We have an abundance of native and non-natives in our yard, and you can see their pathways throughout the rich black top soil all the way down into the red clay subsoil.

Certain species of earthworms go to the surface to eat the organic matter, convert it to fertilizer (e.g. poop) in their digestive systems, then bring that fertilizer deeper into the soil where other organisms and plant roots can have access to it. In the process, they create burrows lined with bacterial aggregates that help form good soil structure and help the soil breathe.  

Fungi also use the worm’s pathways to extend their mycelial networks. Think of each of these earthworms as a tiny plow and fertilization machine!

5. Nature’s Internet

It’s hard to see, but the little white dots in the left middle part of the image are small fruiting mushrooms connected to a vast underground “mycelial web.” 

The mycelial web is nature’s “internet,” transferring information, water and nutrients between plants in the ecosystem while connecting them into a single symbiotic, collaborative system. (Read an overview of the amazing findings about the “Wood Wide Web” by researchers at University of British Columbia.)

Plowing your soil harms and disrupts this system. Since 95% of all known plants on Earth are mycorrhizal (e.g. dependent upon symbiotic relationships with mushrooms for their survival), it’s best to do as little harm as possible to this system.

Do you want to be healthy? Food is your best medicine and you take it daily. Healthy food requires healthy soil. Healthy garden and farm soil requires us to understand how soil ecology works. So, observe, study, and learn. You’ll have less work and more food!

Having problems with your soil? Recently had a neat observation in your garden? Let us know in the comments!

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