Self-Sufficiency Sundays: Keep Your Soil Healthy!

Quick note: I’m probably going to start doing these biweekly. Little easier on my schedule.

I don’t think I need to tell you that healthy soil leads to healthy plants. Is your soil light in color, dry, hard and impacted, or dusty and crumbly? Do your plants always wilt and die as soon as the fertilizer’s used up? Is there a patch in your garden (I know you don’t have a lawn!) where nothing ever grows? Do your potted plants never seem to do well? You’ve got some bad soil, my friend.

Here’s a rule of thumb: healthy soil is living soil. Healthy soil is teeming with microbes, fungi, worms, insects, and other beasties; unhealthy soil is uninhabited. Soil life is what causes decomposition, which releases nutrients for plants; healthy soil can’t help but fill itself with plant life as seeds are deposited by wind and larger animals. Unfortunately, our current agricultural practices – on both large and small scales – both discourage soil life from forming and actively kill it off. There are four things you can do, though, to encourage the critters to reinhabit your garden or pots: give them good water, fertilize with compost, refrain from chemical pesticides, and mulch each surface.

1. Water.
Most tap water is chlorinated. Chlorine, as any Orange Country resident knows, is the stuff that you pour in your pool to keep the sides from turning green. You do this because chlorine is a poison. When you put it in your pool water, it kills the algae; when you pour it on your plants, it kills all the soil life.

So here’s what you do. If you’re in an apartment and are just dealing with potted plants, fill your watering can or another container with tap water and let it sit, uncovered, for 24 hours. All the chlorine will gradually evaporate into the air. When I started doing this, I didn’t notice any huge surge in growth, but the pots did seem to retain their moisture a lot longer. (A quick note on potted plants: soil doesn’t have time to soak up the water if you just slosh some in there and let it run through; furthermore, any water running out the bottom of the pot takes nutrients with it. Water your potted plants at least two or three times, catching the water in a reservoir beneath the pot and pouring it back in.)

If you have a house and a yard, consider installing a cistern to catch rainwater. A cistern is basically just a big barrel positioned under the downspout that leads from your rooftop gutter. Just make sure that if you have an asphalt roof, you install what’s called a foul flush system so that you don’t get toxins in your water. For more detailed instructions, see Scott Kellogg and Stacy Pettigrew’s Toolbox for Sustainable City Living.

2. Compost.
The ecosystems found within soil are incredibly complex, and the nutrients they provide plants are correspondingly so. Conversely, the nutrients in chemical fertilizer are reduced to three main elements (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) plus a few extra chemicals thrown in for good measure. Recreating natural fertilizer in a lab is the equivalent of trying to put together a puppy. You can try, but instead of this:

a labrador retriever puppy.

Image Description: a labrador retriever puppy.

You’ll probably get this:

Sonys robot dog, the Aibo.

Image description: Sony's robot dog, the Aibo.

Just… not… the same.

(Oh, how I wanted to find a clip from Futurama’s Robo Puppy episode. “Robo Puppy commencing cheek licking! Licking in progress! Licking complete!” Classic.)

Luckily, you don’t need that jar of Miracle-Gro anyway, because compost has all the microbe-produced nutrients your plants need. If you’re not sheet mulching (more on that later), adding compost to your soil will keep it full of natural plant food. And as an added bonus, the soil life will attract more soil life, making your ecosystem even richer! A few weeks after I added my worms and garbage to the compost bin in my garage, I opened it up to find pill bugs crawling through the castings.

3. Pest Control.
To some extent, healthy soil itself will cut down on pests, since with all those species either in the soil or attracted by the soil, there’s bound to be a natural predator or two. Pests are naturally drawn to weakened plants, so if you’ve got a healthy garden, you probably won’t need much spray. But I’ve found that potted plants seem to be more susceptible to pests – especially my indoor ones, maybe because aphids can fit through the window screen but ladybugs can’t – so you may have to do a little maintenance now and then. Like chlorine, pesticides are poisons, and kill everything on contact, including beneficial soil life. Constantly spraying crops with poison only exacerbates pest problems; the soil life and predators die, making the plants even more vulnerable, and the pests, which are quick-breeding and more resilient than predators, come right back in even greater numbers.

The best thing is to try to attract natural predators with mulch (great for tiny spiders) and flowers (loved by ladybugs). But, like I said, in some cases you’ve just got to spray. In that case, try to use an organic spray with natural ingredients – these will suffocate the pests. You’ll still kill some beneficial life, but you won’t render the soil uninhabitable.

4. Mulch.
In dry climates, exposed soil is scorched, lifeless soil. In wet climates, exposed soil is probably not occurring very much, because it’s full of seedlings. Keep your soil moist! A layer of dried leaves or wood chips regulates the temperature and keeps moisture from evaporating. Sheet mulch, which is a thick layer of “green” (manure, kitchen scraps, etc.) and “brown” (dried leaves, paper, or wood) composting materials, actually creates compost and builds soil as organisms eat it and poop it out. Toby Hemenway describes it pretty thoroughly in Gaia’s Garden. Finally, groundcover plants, such as clover, function as a living mulch.

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