Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Soil's the Thing

For a short while now I have been fascinated by the gardening of folks like Ruth Stout, Emilia Hazelip, Masanobu Fukuoka, and most recently Paul Gautschi. If these names are not familiar, here are some links:

On Ruth Stout:



On Emilia Hazelip and Synergistic Agriculture:


On Fukuoka:


On Paul Gautschi:


These approaches all have one thing (at least) in common - a covering of mulch. Almost all of these methods would be considered 'organic' in that there is no pesticide or herbicide use. But they are radical in that they go beyond organic into what is described as 'natural' or 'synergistic' by adding a no-till and no-fertilizer approach. There is no compaction of the soil, so it stays loose, rich and moist beneath a covering of hay, straw or mulch (or even wool!).

I have become convinced that these are not just one-off experiments or exceptions to the rule that just happen to work because the gardeners are actually fertilizing or cheating in some way beyond the prescribed rules of the method. It makes beautiful sense when you stop to consider how nature functions, and, as Paul Gautschi says, how God designed the world to be.

As a preacher I know how hard it can be to 'get out of the way' and let the Holy Spirit do its thing. But when I am successful in delivering a faithful message (not necessarily fancy or fitting but simply faithful to deliver the pure gospel truth) I can see the result in the many folks who say to me, "How did you know what to say? You were speaking to me today!" I tell them it wasn't me, but God found favor enough to use my foolish faithfulness and despite my sinful condition managed to connect with you through the Holy Spirit.

I think it's the same way with the soil. We tinker with it by adding compost, fertilizer (even organic), etc. and then what? We have to keep tinkering in order to maintain the imbalance we created by overfeeding or undermining the natural processes already at work. So how do we get out of the way and let nature do what it's already wanting to do? And how does it work?

The what to do is well covered by the folks already linked above. The how is another story altogether. That's covered in great but easily digested detail in this book, "Teaming with Microbes" by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.


I checked out a copy from my local library and devoured it in a few evenings. The soil food web is the amazing universe of life beneath our feet. Or, rather, to follow Hazelip's advice - no compacting the soil - in our garden beds. I learned that plants actually communicate with the soil life by exuding and secreting substances (exudates) from their roots that attract microbes which will turn organic matter and other soil critters into nutrients the plant can use, in a form the plant can uptake.

This is cutting edge science that stands poised to reverse the green revolution; it's that radical. This is the why behind the mulching methods and, not to put it too lightly, every functioning soil system on the planet.

Suffice it to say my approach to gardening has shifted dramatically since awakening to the soil food web. My job is no longer to feed the plants, but to feed the soil. Soil remediation and repair is possible with a few simple steps like sheet composting to get the process started, then patience and time as nature does the rest. In fact, the soil can be repaired very quickly in the span of a few seasons of intentional 'work', allowing a cover crop to do it's thing unseen beneath the surface. In nature this process of gradual rebuilding and succession takes several years. We can duplicate this process and shorten the timescale by bringing together the elements needed then getting out of the way.

Okay...enough for now. Can you tell I'm excited about this? I hope you'll take the time to follow these links and do some research on your own.

Until next time, happy gardening!


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