How do oak trees grow with no fertilizers or pesticides? How does a tree grow on a cliff? How do plants survive when people aren't helping them? It's all because the health of the soil supports the life of the plants.
Living soil is the idea that the life in the soil provides nutrients and life to the plants, insects, and animals above ground, and visa versa. So a healthy soil is an important part of a healthy ecosystem! That includes the health of all living things from the deer in the forest, to the algae in the water, to the bacteria that can be found absolutely everywhere. The whole ecosystem! It is all linked together and it all relies on a balance to allow it to thrive. The soil is an important part of that balance because there are a lot of different creatures living under there that all have jobs to do! Micro and macro creatures, all living and playing a part in the bigger picture. Sound familiar? The soil isn't just full of dead leaves and broken down trees, it's full of fungus, bacteria, nemetodes, archaea, as well as bigger organisms like springtails, earthworms, beetles, and even bigger animals like rodents and snakes. The plants use the organisms in the living soil to feed itself and give back to the ecosystem, and the organisms do the same to the plant! This keeps the soil healthy and prevents compaction, erosion & crazy events like the 1930's Dust Bowl from happening. The soil is held together by all of these creatures and life, and if we interrupt even PART of it, we can do a lot of damage.
In fact, most of the time humans are damaging the soil food web and not doing the work to make up for it. We till the soil (which causes compaction), put pavement on it, litter on it, pump chemicals into it, steal resources from it, spill oil onto it, remove organic material from lawns (which disturbs the natural soil food web) and much more.
In the garden, when we damage the life in the soil we have to take the place of it and do the work that the soil does. We have to get the plants all the nutrients it needs, protect it from disease and drought, retain a healthy soil structure, keep the root system healthy, clean up dead plant material, and more.
So how can we support the health of the soil?
In garden beds you can practice healthy soil habits like not tilling, using mulch, watering with beneficial teas, rotating crops (not growing them in the same place year to year), and not spraying pesticides or fertilizing with salt or heavy metal based fertilizers. Organic fertilizers that are added to the soil are my favorite because they are usually a granular or powder that releases over a certain period of time, which varies depending on the product.
When it comes to house plants and containers you can water with beneficial teas & transplant when the soil gets funky or compact. Usually a good organic potting soil has a host of different fungi and bacteria to get you started. You can also use a mulch on the top of the soil, which protects fungi and keeps the gnats away.
Out in the rest of the world we can do our best to not litter and reduce the use of disposable stuff. Because the health of the soil is relying on all of us! There is no magic fix, we all just have to be mindful.
Being mindful of your practices and how they effect the world around you is a good habit to develop. It is not easy to think about the environment every time you are in the garden and I'm definitely not asking you to do that and stress out over it. Just be conscious and start to make decisions with the earth in mind. We can make a big impact & it is up to you to decide what kind of impact you want to make.
I recently made a podcast episode about the concept of living soil and what it has to do with community. Nature can teach us many lessons and this is one of them! Check it out if you have time!