Soil

Soil Is Alive!

Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about living soil and its importance. But, what exactly do we mean by the term “living soil”?

Handful of soil
The handful of soil you hold in your hand contains tiny fungi, bacteria, algae, nematodes, insects, mites and springtails, all of them practically invisible to the naked eye. Image: Photo: Will Parson, Chesapeake Bay Program, flickr.

First, although “living soil” or “soil food web” may seem like some sort of new buzzwords, there is nothing new in this concept. We’ve known for a very long time that the soil contains life and that the life that makes it up is essential. In fact, soil is considered one of the most complex microbial habitats that exists. Even more than human skin or dirty bed sheets!

Alive? In What Way?

Springtail
Springtails are so small they are practically invisible to the eye. Photo: Philippe Garcelon sur Wikimédia Commons.

It is estimated that almost a quarter of all living species described until today are found in the soil beneath our feet! If that’s not living, what is?

That means the handful of soil you hold in your hand is not just grains of sand and silt, mini-clods of clay and bits of dead leaves. It’s also tiny fungi, bacteria, algae, nematodes, insects, mites and springtails, all of them practically invisible to the naked eye. Then you can include in this wonderful mix earthworms and other larger critters that live in the soil. And you find all of that in just the first 6 inches (15 cm) of soil.

Workers: Part of the Living Soil

The complexity of soil is due to the activities and interactions between the different living organisms. They ensure its proper functioning and increase the fertility of the soil.

In the soil, there are all sorts of organisms with different roles. Decomposers, for example, are there to break down organic matter. And there are engineers that make logical particle groupings. Chemists, for their part, join together small bits of nitrogen with small bits of hydrogen, or weld phosphorus or potassium with oxygen. In this way, we obtain winning formulas, products that the roots of plants can absorb. Finally, there are inspectors, controllers, bodyguards, tunnelers, wreckers, etc. Soil is definitely a complex microsociety!

Why Is Soil Life Important?

Very often, lack of life in the soil may explain why your plants are so weak or grow four times less densely than those of your friend to whom you gave the division in the first place. Do note that I was careful to use the phrase may explain, because there are several other reasons why a plant doesn’t grow as well as it should. It could also be due to a lack of water, overly acidic pH, poor exposure to sunlight, etc. Sometimes it’s about the alignment of stars and mystical forces … well, actually, that last bit was more or less a joke, but not quite. Because sometimes there simply is no explanation for a plant’s poor performance!

In short, though, if the soil is happy, your plants will be happy.

How to Bring Your Soil to Life?

Of course, life in the soil needs nurturing. Inputs of compost or decomposed manure of all types provide building materials for soil microorganisms. They keep them busy and allow them to proliferate.

Of course, all “cides” (insecticide, fungicide, herbicide, algaecide, etc.) will have a negative impact on the soil’s tiny inhabitants. It’s best to avoid applying such products.

vector of rototiller.
For Sale! Ill.: Public Domain Vectors.

It’s also time to put an ad for your rototiller on the classified section, because intense tillage greatly upsets the microenvironment and then everything has to start again from scratch. Numerous studies show the massive drop in biomass in deeply tilled soils. Instead of cultivating the soil finely and in depth, you could simply till the surface of the soil (the first 3 inches/7 cm), if indeed you till it at all, and only very lightly.

Bringing Life Back to Soil

In general, gardeners who started growing in poor soil claim that it takes 5 to 7 years of light tillage, amendments, incorporation of green manures and good care to bring a soil back to a state of good fertility for plants. In other words, the life of the soil must be maintained and taken care of every year. You have to give back to the soil all the nutrients the plants have taken out.

Of course, with soil having such a complex composition, each action will have a different impact for one or another of the categories of soil microorganisms. I can only encourage you to look deeper into the subject, because the soil—and I can’t stress this enough!—is the very basis of gardening. There are many good places you could go to learn more, like the website Unlock the Secrets of Soil by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service and the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web and other books by Jeff Lowenfels.

I hope I haven’t put you to sleep with my little article praising living soil. I know that chemistry is not the favorite subject of most of our readers. And preaching for what cannot be seen with the naked eye is not always easy. But science backs it up.

Just remember this: take care of your soil and your soil will take care of your plants!

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

7 comments on “Soil Is Alive!

  1. Pingback: Why Is the Second Year Vegetable Garden Nearly Always a Flop? The Sad Story Behind Almost Every Vegetable Bed! - Laidback Gardener

  2. Christine Lemieux

    Great explanation of life in soil!

  3. Great article; thanks Julie! I’m looking forward to reading the books!

  4. Jt Michaels

    Yikes – had to look up snake worms after reading Judy’s comment. None yet in my Northwest Lower Michigan gardens. ?

    Here on this hill, the soil is clay – hard pack just under a foot. I’ve learned to feed the soil, including self-mulching. Never till. ?

  5. Excellent post. A good mantra to follow is ‘Feed the soil and not the plants’ and to always keep it covered.

  6. ritterwkf

    Excellent article. I’ve neglected my soil. That’s about to change. Thank-you!

  7. Good post. My main issue right now are the invasive snake worms living in my soil. 🙁

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