Nature won’t allow bare soil; it will attempt to cover it with growth as fast as possible. The only places in nature with bare earth are recently exposed ground or deserts and rocky areas. Yet we as gardeners think we know better, faithfully pulling the weeds and clearing the soil to allow our plants to grow big and strong. Long rows of single species plants with bare soil between is the classic image of a well-tended garden. But what about when we look beyond the visual garden and instead look to understand the soil in which this garden grows.
Soil is about so much more than a medium for growing your plants, when soil is healthy it is a thriving underground community of microorganisms, full of bacteria (not a bad word but an essential part of life…) fungi, nematodes, micro-arthropods and more. These underground livestock create a food cycling system, utilising the organic matter and minerals in their environment, which produces a more bio-available food source for your plants. The theory is, by some natural soil scientists, that once you have built up your underground livestock to a thriving ecosystem you will no longer have to apply nutrients to your soil to achieve good plant growth.
So, what encourages this underground ecosystem to grow? The most important step is ‘first do no harm’. This means look at everything you apply to your plants and soil from a ‘does this benefit the soil’ approach. Fungicides, pesticides, herbicides can cause great harm, even natural based ones, these are killers for you soil life. The use of synthetic fertilisers and even the natural ones used in large doses break the natural nutrition cycle, again causing harm to the tiny critters in the soil. It is better to tweak your garden with low amounts of nutrient if needed. Usually as foliar applications, light layers of aged compost or light spreading of vermicast.
By minimising soil disturbance and leaving the roots of harvested plants in the ground where possible, you have less disruption to the underground eco-systems. While an initial double digging of garden beds is often needed when establishing gardens in compacted areas (to allow for aeration and improved water absorption) the less digging and soil movement the better it is for the soil. Once formed the garden beds should not be walked on to retain their soft earth feel and prevent re-compaction.
Diversity is another important tool in maintaining not only the health of the soil but also for the plants above. Companion plants which support the growth of other plants, deter or distract pest insects from your crops and also plants which bring the beneficial insects into the garden. Perennial crops and herbs act as anchor plants, a safe haven for your underground livestock for when you do have to lightly cultivate areas, such as planting or harvesting carrots and other roots crops.
Which brings us back to the opening statement ‘Nature won’t allow bare soil’ Maintaining a cover on your soil, whether it is plant cover or natural mulches reduces moisture loss, soil loss through erosion and most importantly creates a carbon food source for your underground livestock. Increasing the carbon in your soil improves nutrient cycles, water holding capacity and less need for inputs. Forests are the perfect example of carbon cycling. In deciduous forests the leaves drop, branches break and trees fall, the undergrowth grows up and dies down, all of this cycles the nutrients in a continuous rhythm. If we mimic this cycling on a smaller scale in our gardens, returning all organic matter to the land in various forms, mulch, compost, vermicast, manure, chop and drop, we create a carbon/nutrient cycle with the aid of our underground livestock crew.
Luckily for our soil’s microbial life mulching and covering the earth is becoming common practice in natural garden systems. What was initially viewed as labour saving by reducing weeds and the need to water as much, is now seen as life enhancing for our soil and the plants which grow in it. The best source of mulch is from your own property and if you have trees and woody shrubs all pruning can be made into Ramial wood mulch.
Ramial Wood Mulch
Ramial mulch is made from the fresh cut branches, up to 7cm in diameter and mulched while the cambium layer is still green. Having your own mulcher at hand means these branches can be dealt with promptly and provides a regular supply of fresh ramial mulch. Often leaf matter or tree buds are included in the mulch which adds even more nutrient for the soil. It is considered to have the optimal balance of carbon to nitrogen when used fresh, becoming higher in carbon as it ages. An issue with using aged wood chip is it can result in a ‘nitrogen deficit’ where the woodchip and soil meets. This is because the microorganisms (underground livestock) that use the low-nitrogen wood mulch as food and therefore breaking it down, must source the nitrogen they need from the soil instead. The soil nitrogen is tied up as their population grows, but as they break down the wood mulch and the microorganisms die the nitrogen releases back to the soil. If too much nitrogen is removed from the soil it can lead to pale leaves and stunted growth, symptoms of nitrogen deficiency. This can be negated by adding nitrogen to the soil in the form of blood and bone or aged manure at the time of applying the mulch or just by using ramial mulch.
For more information, please check out:
And Korean Natural Farming at https://naturalfarminghawaii.net/