When it comes to growing plants, one of the first mistakes modern systems make is mistreating the soil. The second mistake is that they do it again and again until there’s little more left than infertile earth with a chemical concoction to provide food for the plants. In the end, even that stops working, crops fail and new land gets designated for the privilege. Can anyone say unsustainable practices?
The painful or funny thing, depending on how we want to see it, is that nature makes the whole process look even more foolish. Ever noticed how a forest, a jungle, is just full of life and plants, things growing on top of everything else. No one is tilling or weeding or fertilizing, yet the abundance of plant-life is staggeringly proficient. In fact, until human interference, forests just naturally thrive.
It’s all about the soil.
The Downfall of the Dominate System
The current system doesn’t work because it’s contrary to nature. We are fighting the plants that want to grow — and serve a purpose — by pulling them or, worse, chemically crushing them. We are turning the soil over, exposing its sensitive underbelly rather than protecting and nurturing it. We grow singular crops, which suck out specific soil nutrients, ultimately injecting artificial versions of these nutrients. Then, we are clearing away the organic life that would have broken down to replenish the soil with nutrients, a la compost.
When soil is tilled and bare, as we see in the picture-perfect rows, the ground dries out (and we pump millions upon millions of gallons of water onto it). When the ground dries out, the microorganisms and soil life necessary for a healthy eco-system dies, and wind and water erosion take away the rich layer of top soil. Then, we harvest crops, leaving the soil exposed again with nothing to rebuild the soil’s underground ecosystem. It doesn’t take long for said soil to become deficient.
Then, the fertilizer companies have us.
What Happens in a Natural System
In a forest, where the soil is insanely rich, supporting lavish plant-life yet still increasing in fertile, things are done a little differently. Plants all grow together rather than singularly. The forest floor is rarely turned, save for the occasional animal scratching the surface in search of food or an uprooted tree. The leaves and limbs of trees and bushes fall, covering everything with a thick comforter of debris. Fertilizers, herbicide and pesticides never factor into the equation.
This works so well for a myriad of reasons. The mixture of plants is very valuable because each plant has different root systems (all performing different relevant tasks), needs specific minerals and fulfills specific functions in the system. By the soil being covered over again and again, the topsoil is protected (and moist) rather than dry and eroding. Then, all of that debris breaks down, feeding all of the life within and towering above the soil. Nothing is wasted. Nothing needs to be added. The system maintains itself.
How We Can Replicate This in Our Gardens
Well, then, it seems fairly sensible, as if it didn’t before, to do things more naturally when we are trying to grow food, and luckily, this is simple, much more so than scheduling, measuring out and applying chemicals. By following the forest’s example, we can build our soil, enrich its life, increase its mineral content and create gardens that are healthy, require less attention and provide us an abundant, healthy rainbow of food. Here’s what to do:
- Mix Plants: Plants are meant to mingle. Some root systems tap deep and pull up nutrients from below, some root systems spread horizontally and keep topsoil in place and other root systems, like those of legumes, deposit fertility building nodes in the soil. Above the surface, certain plants repel insects, some provide lots of organic matter to feed the other plants and, of course, there are plants gives us fruit, veg, nuts, seeds, medicine and much more. Just like we can’t survive on one food alone, neither can the soil.
- Don’t Dig: Turning the soil, exposes, and thus, kills the organisms within it. This initially increases fertility because the decomposition of these organisms provides nutrients, which is why tilled soil is so heavy with weeds. But, what happens when there is no life, or death, left in the soil? Instead, build gardens atop the ground, leaving all of the things beneath them intact and, in fact, adding to them. The less we dig the less we disturb what is already working or, in the case of weeds, subdued. Forests grow without anyone digging to plant them.
- Mulch Heavily: Mulching protects the soil and organisms in it, traps moisture, as well as builds new layers full of nutrients rather than allowing the old ones to wash away. In a forest, organic debris just piles and piles atop the soil surface, both protecting it and enriching it. In a garden, this can be replicated by simply dropping the weeds we pull up, adding the leaves with rake from the yard, spreading straw or hay or grass cuttings, using waste bark or wood shavings, and only taking away the things we plan to use or eat. Help the eco-system thrive by allowing it to function as it is.
Do these things and a garden will behave more like an ecosystem, supporting itself and working cyclically rather than constantly requiring human interference as those tilled and rowed creations do. This makes for richer soil, and that makes for a full bounty of good food.
Lead image source Natural Resources Conservation Services/Flickr