Soil Improvement

The importance of good soil and how to look after the soil at the Rosamund Community Garden

‘’We have to repair our soil before all the topsoil is gone’’ has been touted since 2013. Following the principles of agricultural regeneration could “reverse” climate change. It’s a form of cultivation which improves the soil and at the same time improves the environment, without the use of fertilisers or pesticides.

Recent research has shown that uprooting plants/ pulling out weeds disturbs the ecosystems (fungal and invertebrates) within soil. It also results in high emissions as the captured carbon is released.

Regenerative gardening and other research-based modern systems use ‘no-till’ methods to avoid this. It is advised to leave off traditional deep digging or double digging and forking up plants. A better way is to follow ‘no dig’ methods. Instead, chop off the plant (weed) to be removed at root level, just below the soil. Leave the roots in the soil to rot away by itself, creating channels in the soil which will aerate it naturally. Also good to leave the removed plant, chopped up, on top of the soil; this allows earthworms to do their work in situ, drawing the nutrients back into the soil for later crops.

On another note, it’s best to leave last year’s dead plant debris and weeds in the beds over winter, instead of tidying everything up neatly. This protects the soil from the elements and reduces the leaching of nutrients. It also provides shelter for beneficial insects to over-winter and supports natural pest control. It’s okay if the garden sometimes looks a bit messy!

Good soil health is at the heart of regenerative agriculture. The aim is to improve or restore soils that have been degraded by rebuilding soil organic matter and increasing soil biology. Soils that are structurally sound and rich with organic matter and micro-organisms are better able to retain water and store carbon. Healthier soils lead to healthier plants while helping to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

The four core principles of regenerative gardening are:

1. Minimising soil disturbance

There are more micro-organisms in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on Earth (!). These living organisms create soil fertility, but disturbing them through tillage or by using chemicals destroys the soil structure that acts as their home.

2. Keeping the soil covered

Nature always works to fill a vacuum, and bare soil is no different. Keeping it covered protects it from wind and water erosion, while preventing moisture evaporation and weed seeds germinating.

Most growers choose to keep soil covered by maintaining living roots in the soil as much as possible through the year – typically by growing cover crops in the gaps between crops.

That also helps retain nutrients and food supply for the micro-organisms in the soil.

3. Maximising plant or crop diversity

The theory is that pests, diseases and poor nutrient cycling in crops are due to the lack of diversity in our farming system. Increasing the range of crops and animals in the system decreases pest and disease pressure while supporting biodiversity and improving soil health.

4. Integrating livestock/using organic manure

Livestock grazing of cover crops on arable land provides a natural source of organic matter. 

At the Rosamund Community Garden we have access to well rotted horse manure, which is mixed with biochar (a form of charcoal that is produced by exposing organic waste matter such as wood chips, crop residue, or manure, to heat in a low-oxygen environment and that is used especially as a soil amendment) and spread over our food growing areas. This encourages new plant growth, which stimulates the plants to pump more carbon into the soil. This drives nutrient recycling by feeding biology.

All food is only as good as the soil in which it is grown. The magic is harder to see – there should be loads of hyphae, or fungal filaments, snaking through every square metre of healthy soil. 

Improve soil health, improve nutrition and wellbeing. Improve nutrition, improve flavour.

(Information supplied by The Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales)

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