But first, The Soil
One of the main tenets of Regenerative Agriculture, including Permaculture, is restoring fertility to the soil. After a disappointingly meager yield from the garden, I have a deep personal understanding of why this is so important; no fertility, no food. So I’ve been doing a deep dive into researching soil and soil fertility so that next year’s garden will be much, much better. This is what I’ve found.
The UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, reports that more than a third of the world’s soil is moderately to severely degraded. That’s really a pretty scary thought. Without fertile soil, humanity can’t survive. And we are the problem:
Climate change, the spread of intensive agriculture, deforestation and industrial activity have accelerated the loss of soils in almost every country in the world. Farming practices such as tilling break up the soil and destroy its natural structure, killing many of the vital bacteria and fungi that live there and leaving it vulnerable to being washed away.Richard Gray, BBC (http://www.bbc.com/future/bespoke/follow-the-food/why-soil-is-disappearing-from-farms/ )
If we want to continue enjoying the riches of our soils in the future, it’s time to sit up and pay attention. There is work to be done, and it starts right in the backyard garden.
But just as humans have contributed to this degradation, it’s exciting to know we can also contribute to restoration. By using small, slow solutions to our soil crisis, we can ensure lasting change. Even those who grow nothing more than grass in their yards can contribute .
Small, Slow Solutions
One on the principles of Permaculture is to use small, slow solutions. When we make big changes, it’s easy to become overwhelmed, so the change becomes unsustainable. We really need sustainable solutions to improving fertility. Fortunately, soil doesn’t ask a whole lot from us. With just a few small changes, we can have a big impact. In fact, many solutions to improve soil fertility will actually save you money. Additionally, these changes result in less work over time than their more traditionally accepted counterparts.
For example, a naturalized landscape will save you money because you are no longer purchasing inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. You’ll also gain back the time you spend applying these products. Further, this same landscape will allow the soil’s natural microbiota to recover, earthworms and other beneficial critters to thrive, and tilth to improve. If you really want to go all out, oversow the yard with clover; as it fixes nitrogen, it will feed the grass, and will also provide a food source for bees. It’s a win-win-win!
6 Ways to Aid Soil Regeneration
1. Forego weedkillers, fertilizers, and pesticides
Most, if not all, lawn chemicals fundamentally alter the biology of the soil. These chemicals leave salts behind which alter the PH of soil, and reduce beneficial microbes. When we stop using these chemicals, nature steps in to help return the soil to balance.
Perhaps the most visible indicator of this change is, unfortunately, weeds. Weeds are Mother Nature’s repair crew. Dandelions move in to help break up compacted soil with their deep tap roots. Clover, hairy vetch, and black medic move in to add healthy, slow-release nitrogen. Still others are indicators of soil PH and can help determine what beneficial amendments need to be added to the soil.
After a few chemical-free years, soil conditions will improve, and weeds will not be quite as prevalent. By then, the “green desert” of a chemically treated lawn will have given way to a much more diverse plant community. Soil can then host beneficial bacteria, earthworms, and insects that all contribute to the continued improvement of the soil.
2. Start a compost pile
Instead of sending grass clippings and leaves to the landfill, use them to start a compost pile. Then add compostable items such as uneaten vegetables, coffee grounds, newspaper, etc.
If turning a compost pile isn’t your kind of fun, use a “lazy-man’s composting” and just pile it up in an out-of-the-way corner, and let it sit until the following year. Then use your rich, nutrient-filled compost as top-dressing for the yard or garden. This is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your soil, and costs zero dollars.
4. Practice no-till gardening
While tilling seems a quick fix for garden prepping, it wreaks havoc in the soil. First, it destroys the delicate filaments of mycelium and bacterial colonies. While bacteria will initially thrive from the extra oxygen, they are soon lost. Tilling also diminishes porosity, causing water run-off and topsoil loss. The lack of plant cover also contributes to compaction, erosion, and a marked reduction in the tilth of the soil. Tilling kills the soil.
3. Aerate the Soil
Aeration helps break up compacted soils, and allows oxygen and water into the soil for bacteria, worms , and decomposition. Aeration should be done annually, or twice a year for heavy clay. This can be done with a powered aerator, or simply with a digging fork. ( Or maybe two digging forks and a friend to help you!)
5. Plant Cover Crops in Early Spring & Fall
Cover crops help prevent erosion, and with the right plants will add nitrogen to the soil (clover, winter rye, buckwheat) , break up compaction (daikon radish), and add biomass (comfrey). Use annual varieties that die with frost, and mow when flowering to prevent reseeding. Then, when you plant, simply plant into the remnants of the cover crop and mulch over it with wood chips or other material. This is a really simple way of adding back organic matter.
6. Use perennial plants
Annual plants will always have their place in the garden and yard. But there is so much more out there beyond the usual tomatoes, lettuce, onions, etc found in annual vegetable gardens. Annual flowers are great for a pop of color, but a foundation of perennial plantings mean better soil and less work for the gardener or farmer. Perennial plants generally put down deep roots that help stabilize soil, and often form beneficial relationships with soil microbes.
Some great-tasting perennial vegetables to start with include asparagus, rhubarb, fiddleheads, Egyptian onion, artichokes, and Good King Henry. For an encyclopedic listing of perennial vegetables, check out Perennial Vegetables by Eric Toensmeier. By using perennial vegetables, the garden will provide ample harvest with less work.
Learn More about Soil Restoration
here are SO MANY resources out there to learn more about Soil Restoration and Regenerative Agriculture. Joel Salatin is one of the leading voices in this movement and much of his wisdom can be found for free on the internet. Chelsea Green Publishing is also a great resource, as they are devoted to publishing books about farming, gardening, sustainability and more. For a deeper dive, consider this free Permaculture course or other online offerings on regenerative agriculture.