Soil health is something that’s routinely overlooked as it relates to justice and liberation, but it’s historically been one of the major drivers behind the growth and decline of empires and one of the earliest resources on which to base oppressive power structures.
Soil is more than dirt with certain nutrients in it. I’ll occasionally hear people saying something to the effect of “plants can grow as long as you have these three nutrients” (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium), and while that is technically true for most crops, it’s a poor way to approach the soil we essentially draw our life from. Soil includes countless microbes, including fungal, bacterial, and animal life. Good living soil contains mollusks. Yes, mollusks!
Most plants we grow, and to my knowledge most plants in general, form symbiotic relationships with fungi and/or bacteria to better absorb nutrients in the soil. Sometimes these microbes are the only way the plants can get certain nutrients, as they’re not initially in a biologically available form. The nitrogen fixing ability of legumes, for example, is largely made possible by a handful of types of bacteria.
In my earlier post Agriculture vs Horticulture and Permaculture, I briefly discussed the fact that the act of plowing fields annually, as well as the practice of growing monocrops, degrades soil, and thus isn’t going to be a method that can be sustainable in the long term. This is true whether the practice is “organic” or conventional/industrial; industrial agriculture just does it intensively. The soil is continually damaged from exposure to the elements, the microbial life repeated battered, and growing only one species will rapidly deplete some nutrients that, without the presence of other plants to return some of them, will require heavier fertilizing than would otherwise be necessary.
Historically, depleted soil is a major reason for conflict, including wars of expansion. After all, if you need to keep moving further and cutting down more forests to turn into plowed fields, you’ll eventually come up against someone else trying to also subsist in a space. Constant expansion requires regular wars of conquest. The earliest myths of agricultural societies involve Gilgamesh deforesting what is now the Middle East, which used to be cedar forests, oak savanna, and other, much biologically rich environments. All cut and turned under for the plow.
So we know that soil life is important and that constant tilling and exposure isn’t conducive to healthy living soil, so how do we build gardens, food forests, and such so we’re not losing soil?
I’m going to start with some of the stuff I do mostly for my annuals garden focused on subsistence; it’s the part of my food cultivation that’s most similar to typical gardening and is probably the most likely and most important part for y’all to imitate.
The first thing is that it’s okay to till when you’re setting up a garden. It’s also okay to not do that, but I usually do. I prefer to do it manually with hand tools, but I’ve used rototillers if I was crunched for time or didn’t need to worry about removing weeds. The beds I’m rehabbing for my family’s minifarm had been overgrown with a lot of brush in the past decades, and in particular I was concerned about leaving any segments of bittersweet root in there, so I dug by hand with mattock and shovel, and pulled out as much as I could find.
If you’re doing this, this is a great time to add soil amendments. Mixing compost into soil is obviously easier if your turning soil over, and mixing it in will incorporate it better than just sprinkling it on top. It’s great to box in stuff like peat moss, old leaves, and even just plain old fertilizer.
Most importantly here is that I almost always bury wood biomass in my beds, a kind of half-assed version of a practice called hugelkultur or “mound cultivation”. I’ll be writing at least one whole post all about hugelkultur at another time, but for now the takeaway is that burying wood helps retain moisture, build organic matter in the soil, and foster microbial life in the soil (particularly fungi).
Even if you don’t want to or have the capability to add all that extra biomass and fertilizer to soil, something you absolutely must do is cover it. Honestly, I can’t understand how so many gardeners don’t get this, but COVER YOUR FUCKING SOIL. Without some sort of mulch or other cover, soil dries out and the microbial life suffers. Lots of other critters who aren’t on the microbe scale but still play important roles in the soil also benefit from it being well mulched. I can’t tell you how many more worms I find in spots I’ve deep mulched versus spots that haven’t been mulched. Come to think of it, I’m sure I can tell you: it’s a lot. A lot lot.
In particular in regards to mulch I’ve been following the lead of Ruth Stout, a woman who in the last century received some bit of fame for her “no work” garden method. After years of paying someone to till, adding costly fertilizers, spending a bunch of time weeding, etc., one day she basically said ‘fuck it’ and just threw down a thick layer of old hay (according to at least one interview, this was instigated by a conversation with asparagus) on the garden plots. Decomposing hay forms dense mats that smother a lot of weeds, and while decomposing adds nutrients to the soil. The soil maintains it’s health better, since the hay mulch protects it from sun and wind, so the plants have an easier time and the nutrients don’t blow away.
Companion planting is essential to keeping soils from becoming depleted, in addition to many other benefits. As with hugelkultur, I’ll be including more posts about this topic in the future. By interplanting crops that help each other or at least get along well enough, we fill in space that may otherwise not be filled, thus further shielding the soil from the sun and elements, keeping in moisture, and making more efficient use of the space. In a lot of cases, plants cultivated together in “guilds” will be at different heights and have different growing tendencies, allowing us gardeners to functionally use a shitload more space.
Even doing all of this, of course, nutrients are removed in the form of food, and that means we need to return nutrients. Composting is the tried and true method for this, and at it’s core it’s simply letting things like vegetable scraps and other kitchen waste decompose along with stuff like leaves and wood shavings. If we’re really serious we need to talk about composting human waste, but that’s a huge topic and in general I think that might be better suited for fertilizing trees and bushes than annual vegetables.
Incorporating animals into our subsistence infrastructure is going to be essential in the long run, because that’s how actual ecosystems function. The easiest way to do this while also greatly increasing production is keeping a flock of laying hens. Chickens are basically feral birds who leave you breakfast and fertilizer in exchange for protection and maybe feed (when I last had chickens I could go without feeding them most of the year because they had good forage). I would often refer to them as my “rapid composting system”.
I hope I’ve laid this out well enough so that even the most novice gardener can get an idea of what to go out and do to get their garden ready in the spring (or, if you’re like me, get it ready in the fall and winter), and more importantly why we need to start cultivating these sorts of subsistence infrastructures.
In the near future I intend to discuss strategies for planning subsistence gardens. Stay tuned!
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