Building Biodiversity in the Soil

by John Conway
(West Cork, Eire)

In an organic or chemical free garden, the soil is the most important component. In fact healthy soil, water and air, are the most important resources needed for sustaining all life. Even the planet we inhabit is called after this most precious life giving substance ‘Earth’.

The biggest difference between organic/chemical free, and conventional food production is the treatment of, and attitude towards earth/soil. In organics the soil is fed, this in turn feeds the plant.

Conventional food production does not build biodiversity in the soil, it treats the soil more as a medium for holding the plant, in which food is applied by artificially derived nutrients in the forms of nitrogen (N), Phosphorous (P) and potassium (K).

In healthy organic soil, these three building blocks of plant life should be in abundance. Hummus in the form of compost, animal manures and green manures provide these basic nutritional requirements. In healthy soil, there is more species diversity than can be counted, making the soil a complex ecosystem.

Within this ecosystem, components influence, balance and complement each other in a web of life that is as complex as anything above the ground.

Digging is a uniquely human intervention as the earth has been evolving for many millions of years without any digging taking place. Forest ecosystems thrive without any human intervention.

What keeps the soil healthy in the case of natural systems is micro flora and fauna in the soil. Earthworms in particular move through soil creating channels for air and water to get to the roots of plants. Earthworms eat organic matter and produce rich cast in the form of hummus, this is very high in NPK and other trace elements.

Applying generous amounts of organic matter on top of your soil will attract earthworms which will incorporate this into the soil thereby improving the soil structure. The earthworms do the digging so we don’t have to. Establishing paths alongside narrow raised beds will prevent threading on the soil, therefore avoiding compaction and the need to dig.

At the Hollies market garden, our observations have shown us that vegetables thrive in a no-till system and that around 40% of the work can be reduced.

Now that’s food for thought.

Comments for Building Biodiversity in the Soil

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May 04, 2009
Soil biodiversity
by: Megan comments...

Great article John.

I remember helping my Uncle Baden in his garden when young. The soil was black volcanic in the Taranaki plains. My uncle liked straight rows, no bugs or weeds and was keen to use the new chemicals coming onto the markets then.

As I peek under my mulch layers in my own garden now and see the thriving biodiversity of the soil, I compare it to the sterile garden my uncle had.

He meant well, but was seduced by the "neatness" of chemicals. Weedspray kept his lawn edges neat; insecticide kept his plants perfect looking and artificial fertilisers blended into the fine tilth soil without creating unsightly lumps and bumps.

So strangely when nature is working perfectly and soil biodiversity is encouraged to properly feed plants... then everything looks a mess!

May 25, 2009
Healthy soil verses lack of biodiversity
by: Gordon B

I drive past a market garden when I go into town and year after year they use the same paddocks for the same plants. It's mostly cabbages and bok choy type crops.

The crops grow fast, are harvested and almost the next day the area is tilled and covered in white powder which I presume is fertilizer. Seedlings are planted by machine, then several times I've also seen tractors with spray booms and I can smell the chemicals, which I guess are pesticides.

There's a wide stream that flows by these paddocks and out to sea about 2 kms away. I hate to think what gets into the water.

Amazingly people happily pull up in their cars to buy produce from the gate. Just because the sign says Market Garden, they must think it is better than buying from shops!

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