Friday, February 15, 2013

Living Soils Sustain Landscapes

By Justin Evertson, Green Infrastructure Coordinator

“If you go down in the dirt today, you’d better not go alone!
For today’s the day the nematodes have their picnic!”
     Sung to the tune of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic”

So opens the forward written by Dr. Elaine Ingham, Ph.D. for the book Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web authored by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.  Ingham goes on to say: “When you are bored looking at soil from urban lawns, making up words to popular songs is always good! Soil shouldn’t be so boring, but urban landscapes mean dead dirt. It means being bent over a microscope for long hours looking at … nothing but inert particles. Boring. And so, we make up words to songs. Real soil is active, alive, moving! Critters everywhere, doing interesting things! No hours staring through a microscope looking at micrometer after micrometer of boring -- nothing happening. Instead, after just a few seconds – movement, life, action”!
We are learning more all the time about the importance of biologically active soils to the health of natural ecosystems as well as the planted landscape. A healthy soil is teaming with an incredible array of interconnected life forms including bacteria, protozoa, fungi, nematodes and arthropods. More often than not it is also home to amphibians, reptiles (snakes!) and small mammals (mice, voles, etc.). And healthy soils contain abundant organic matter -- the waste, residue and metabolites from plants, animals and microbes.  We call such soils “healthy” because they better sustain the health of the world around us – not just the plants that grow from them, but also the animals that rely on those plants, including people. It’s simple: healthier soils means healthier people.  
Garden millipedes. Photo by UNL Dept. of Entomology.

Unfortunately, in our communities we have mostly practiced the art of soil sterilization as we have gone about our gardening and landscape activities in modern times. When humans figured out how to synthesize fertilizers and pesticides through modern chemistry, we thought (understandably) that we had found a shortcut around Mother Nature to help make our soils more productive and our landscapes easier to maintain (at least in the manicured vision we came to expect). Since then, biological and ecological research has revealed that we were wrong. When it comes to gardens and community landscapes, we must strive for biodiversity and we must start working in greater partnership with nature and natural processes. And this begins with our soils.

Modern lawn care reduces soil health. (image credit:
This critique is not meant to say that all efforts with synthetic fertilizers or pesticides are bad. Indeed, it is unlikely that we could ever feed the 7 billion people of the world without modern chemistry’s assistance to agriculture and some forms of gardening. But within our communities, there really is no excuse for continuing the bad habits that have shortchanged our soil health. We can and we must do better. Thankfully, in our modern age good information is just a click away. Kendall Weyers recently wrote a great piece titled Soil… It’s Alive for the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum. Also, the Teaming with Microbes book quoted at the start of this discussion is highly recommended as an entertaining read about what soil is, why we should all care more about it, and how we can make it better in our own yards and gardens. And there are many others. Just Google “healthy soil”.  

Recycling organic matter is a key to healthy soil.