A Magazine About Food, Art & Exchange In Midtown Kingston, Published By The Hudson Valley Current.

Keeping it Vibrant: How to Make Friends with Your Soil

Generally, being compared to dirt isn’t considered especially flattering. We strive mightily to keep dirt out of our houses and off of our clothes, call it “the dirt” when nasty secrets come out. Cleanliness is said to be “next to Godliness” and being “dirt poor” is hardly a happy state of affairs, while being filthy rich is problematic in its own way.

This isn’t going to be an argument with the value of soap and water; many things are better off clean. But it’s interesting to consider that dirt deserves a lot more appreciation than it gets, and there’s plenty to be said for a deeper understanding of the ground we’re standing on. Clearly, without dirt life itself could not exist. (What would we be standing on? Or eating?)

Soil, to use a slightly friendlier name for this vital substance, is naturally the farthest thing from dull, dead, or any other negative quality we tend to associate with dirt. It’s teeming with vibrant life; there are more living microorganisms in one teaspoon of healthy soil than there are human beings on the planet, which happens to be—far as we know—the only planet with any humans at all and (not coincidentally) called Planet Earth for a reason. Healthy soil and fresh water are the basis of everything we have, do, and are.

Vibrant soil feels good and smells good, holding itself together thanks to the sticky stuff exuded by all those microorganisms. It’s nature’s ultimate cleanup crew, since those microorganisms transform all kinds of organic matter into dark, rich, life-giving humus. Soil is about 40-45% mineral, 25% water, 25% air and 5% organic stuff, living and otherwise—the yeasts, algae, protozoa, bacteria, nematodes and fungi that dwell in it are usually less than half a percent of the total mass, but without them, we’ve got nothing but dust.

With vibrant life, soil captures and filters water, suppresses weeds by eating up the nitrogen, and captures and stores carbon. Healthy, vibrant soil is what feeds the food we eat. So it’s disturbing to realize that human greed has done serious damage to this desperately needed friend. In the name of convenience and profit, industrial agriculture has stripped it of its living component, heedlessly ripping through its vital systems, infusing it with killer chemicals and then adding more chemicals to replace the good living things that were killed off. Mono-cropping, or even the common practice of rotating a field from corn to soybeans and back over and over, depletes the nutrients and organic matter; soil that’s depleted can’t hold its own against erosion. As a species, we’ve undermined the very ground beneath us.

Before the rise of industries and cities, nobody had to think about organic growing because it was the only way. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, in which vast areas of the American and Canadian plains dried up and blew away, should have been a wakeup call about the importance of healthy topsoil, which develops over the course of 100-1000 years or so but can be devastated in just a few. Efforts to bypass that natural process using mechanical and chemical methods solved nothing and led us into our current lessthan-healthy state of affairs.

Working with the soil instead of against it, our long ago ancestors crafted self-sustaining food forests, marvels of diversity full of nuts, fruits, berries and herbs that continue to thrive under their own power long after those who planted and tended them have gone, even in Alaska. And if you have a patch of ground to work with, think permaculture; let the dirt do its thing, reap the rewards of more food and beauty with less work, and enjoy being part of the solution. The most familiar example might be the Three Sisters, the indigenous trick of planting corn, beans and squash in the same mound: the corn shades the shorter plants and gives the beans something to climb, the beans fix the nitrogen and fertilize the other two, and the squash protects the earth and keeps it moist. Boom! Thriving little family.

The basic principle involved, called a guild in permaculture circles, involves putting the right plants together: Think in terms of layers: a food producing tree (peaches, plums, apples and cherries can all thrive in our climate), a nitrogen-fixing tree or shrub (buffaloberry is good), something for the pollinators to enjoy (lots of native flowers make the cut), something with a deep taproot (comfrey works, and has medicinal properties) and a ground cover to shield the soil.

Compared to a European-style garden, a guild pretty much takes care of itself and takes up a lot less space.The billions of microorganisms in vibrant, healthy soil work together with the plants to generate vibrant, healthy food and vibrant, healthy humans in turn—a virtuous cycle of winning that can happen in your own backyard.

VIBRANT LOCAL RESOURCES

A great starter handbook is The Backyard Forest Garden: How to Create a Small-Scale Food Forest by Joel Schwartz and Colleen Codekas, available as an e-book for about $10.00.

EARTH HEALING ARTS integrates permaculture and healing; find out more on Facebook or email marvinawarren@gmail.com.

FARM HUB (hvfarmhub.org) and SEED SONG FARM & CENTER (seedsongfarm.org) are local growers doing right by the soil right around Kingston.

At THE UNDERGROUND CENTER (UGC) the team is fostering movements for social change from the bottom up: soil > social. TheUndergroundCenter.org.