Perhaps because we are terrestrial beings, residing above the planet’s crust, we tend not to consider the subsurface world, or what author Robert MacFarlane calls the ‘underland.’ Yet this subterranean world teems with life. There are more microbes in just one handful of soil than there are people on the planet. More than half of the Earth’s bacteria reside far below ground where they decompose matter and form vital partnerships with plants. The underground is also home to microscopic creatures such as nematodes and protozoa that help to mineralise nutrients and suppress pathogens in the soil. Burrowing earthworms, arthropods and other soil fauna are the ultimate ‘ecosystem engineers’, helping to improve the water-holding capacity and porosity of soils. Mycorrhizal fungi construct vast rhizomatic structures below the surface that enable plants to communicate with one another, warning each other about pests and sharing nutrients (the plants play their part too, feeding fungi glucose harvested through the alchemical practice of photosynthesis). 80% of a plant’s nitrogen and nearly all of its phosphorous come from the mycorrhizal partnerships that fungi have established with their above-ground cousins.
The living soil beneath us is both the basis for these intimate partnerships and their product. As Albert Howard (1873-1947), one of the pioneers of the organic movement, understood, it is impossible to separate soil from the life that it supports. ‘The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.’ In other words, all flourishing is mutual. To degrade the soil is to degrade the basis for life itself.
‘No till’ and ‘low till’ agriculture are designed to keep the soil’s structure intact as well as to retain its species richness. When the soil is tilled whole communities of bacteria, microorganisms, fungi, and earthworms are disturbed, displaced or killed. When the soil’s health is compromised – when it is denuded and impoverished – fertilisers and other synthetic chemicals are needed to replace the fertility previously generated by a biodiverse soil system. Tillage also uproots plant matter – which binds soil together – and hastens evaporation. Exposed and dried out soil is soon lost to erosion, as winds shake the ground and carry off the land’s life-giving fecundity. Steinbeck’s realist novel, The Grapes of Wrath, tells the story of one family, the Joads, fleeing the tragic effects of soil erosion in the US Dust Bowl during the 1930s. Today, according to geomorphologist David Montgomery, 23 billion tons of soil are lost every single year. A lack of respect for living soil means the dust keeps on blowing.
Better care for soil – and the lifeforms that soil nurtures – can prevent this underland apocalypse. As practitioners have noted, no and low till techniques are certainly not a one-stop or easy-fix solution for the problems of soil health; rather they are part of a suite of regenerative practices that encourage better stewardship of the earth, starting with the soil itself. Edible strives to be a hothouse for the hundreds of ‘little shifts’, which together will make for a more careful management of the soil world.
Come down to Edible and see how we put these methods into practice. Using no-dig and soil regeneration principles to revive the ground we grow in.