Soil is the meeting point of the physical and biological worlds, where minerals from weathered rock integrate with recycled organic debris to create the ultimate nutrient bank; a resource that enables plants to flourish. Formed over millions of years, soil provides the living world access to a wealthy reserve of nutrients, and in the process helps support all terrestrial life on Earth.
Look up the word ‘soil’ in any thesaurus however and the same bunch of synonyms will always crop up (no pun intended) – I’m talking about words such as dirt, earth and mud. These words, and indeed many peoples’ views on the matter, depict soil as an inanimate substance that benefits humans merely as an instrument for plant production – however, that could not be further from the truth. This blog will touch on the components that make up a healthy soil and highlight the incredible variety and complexity of life that dwells in the ground beneath us. In this short article, I will only be scratching the surface of what is a sometimes strange and unfamiliar world; a world that, if treated with respect, could revolutionise global agricultural practices and ensure the integrity of our natural environment.
So what is a healthy soil, why is it important and what are the components that make it such a valuable resource?
Well, firstly let’s be clear about what exactly we are defining as soil. In this post, when I use the term soil, I am referring to the top soil horizon, including all the juicy decomposing layers of organic material on top. The soil that I want to write about in this blog is the stuff that would be produced if we just let nature do it’s thing without any intervention from mankind – the nutritious ‘dirt’ that we, at 59 Degrees are passionate about. This soil behaves more like a living, breathing being, and that is perhaps, because it is composed of not just the physical elements (the sand, silt and clay particles, small fragments of rock, fibrous organic matter etc.) but also, contained within its air spaces, are an abundance of tiny living organisms that work together to quite literally ‘bring the soil to life’.
As with every other earthly living being, soils are diverse and their composition varies. In essence, all soils are made up of numerous components, of which there are five fundamental parts that properly balanced, are crucial for creating a healthy soil. A combination of climatic and topographic factors give way to differing quantities and qualities of each of these components, which are minerals, water, gases, organic matter and micro-organisms.
Living Breathing Soil
Up until recently, although we’ve known quite a bit about various organisms living within the soil and their interaction with the soil and plants, we haven’t fully appreciated the full significance of some of their relationships and have therefore overlooked some of the vital roles they play in global systems. These organisms are an essential component of a truly healthy soil, and without them a soil is quite literally lifeless, moreover it will be limited in its ability to support plant growth and the sustainability of the system will be put in jeopardy.
Within this underground realm there are an abundance of peculiar looking organisms, both micro and macro; from bacteria and protozoa to nematodes, mites and worms, each one playing its part in the grand ecosystem that is soil. These organisms are ESSENTIAL for plant growth (they are responsible for breaking down organic matter, for increasing the bioavailability of minerals, for helping to suppress disease, to help aerate the soil etc.), however, it’s the association that plants have with soil fungi that we at 59 Degrees are really excited about, and for good reason too!
Research over the last few years, coupled with our own expertise, has highlighted the importance of the living entities, particularly fungi, contained within a healthy soil. And it’s not just the hard working fungi that break down organic matter that exist down below. Mycorrhizae are part of an ingenious symbiotic association between fungi and the roots of a host plant. Their relationship works on the basis that the fungi grow into the roots of a plant using an intricate web of hyphae, which allows the plant to provide the fungi with a sugary solution created as part of photosynthesis (providing fungi with a source of carbon). In return, the fungi provide the plant with a greater amount of obtainable nutrients from the soil and water.
The liaison between these two organisms is incredibly intelligent – it’s a prime example of nature working at its best, in balance and in cooperation with its environment, which is why recently we’ve become so attentive to its potential.
Scientists are now studying how this underground cooperative really works as part of the wider environment and are looking at ways in which it can support modern agricultural practices. In addition to the provision of nutrients, we know filamentous mycorrhizal fungi enhance water retention in soil, thus they help to improve drought resistance in the associated plant. Vitally they are also key player in building soil structure, making the ground less susceptible to compaction and erosion (FYI top soil is generally a farmers biggest export), they reduce the plants exposure to toxic heavy metals, they can act as a buffer in particularly acidic or saline soils and they can help protect plants from pests and diseases. Each of these benefits has a direct impact on the plant and its surroundings, helping to stabilise and balance and support the local ecosystem – something that could transform the agricultural industry. For instance, they can help farmers withstand drought, use less fertilizers (particularly phosphorus) and grow plants that are more resistant to pathogens, earlier fruiting and produce bigger fruits. Overall, the benefits of farming practices involving mycorrhizae could lead to increased farming efficiency through reducing the input requirements yet producing higher quality produce and at a greater yield.
Research into these plant-fungi relationships is on-going, but what remains constant, is the fact that nature is the unequivocal master of its environment, and we should heed the advice offered when trying to manage the landscape around us. And, of course, the whole biological mechanism surrounding mycorrhizae is much more complex than described here in this blog (these organisms will no doubt be the subject of many future articles), but if we – the ones wanting to control the land – could learn something from this natural marvel, then it might help us foster a more harmonious relationship with our environment and ultimately lead to a cleaner, greener planet.
Life under our feet may be hidden from our eyes, but we neglect their importance at our peril. Even those who regularly work with soil – the scientists, the farmers, the gardeners etc., etc. – view the ground beneath us as a very convenient medium for growing anything with leaves, which is why over the thousands of years that humankind has farmed the land, soil has been extensively cultivated and prepared for producing crops. We’ve spent so long devising techniques that exploit the soil for increased food production, that along the way we’ve gradually removed ourselves from it altogether and have forgotten what good, healthy soils actually look like. The very fact that we – the general population that is – confuse soil with dirt, or muck, suggests that our understanding of soil is limited, or to be more precise, muddied.
If we could only take a leaf out of nature’s book, implementing nature’s own refined strategies for our own survival and well being – after all 4.6 billion years is long enough to know what works best – as a consequence, farming practices will become more resilient, sustainable and in balance with the environment that relies on them. Soil after all, is a natural wonder, a completely different world and an exceptional entity that functions as a key player in the existence of most of the life on earth – soil really is MARVELOUS!