A big part of permaculture is building soil. The loss of quality soils is one of the largest, most prevalent concerns on the globe, and of course, without good soil, producing healthy food just isn’t in the cards. So, really, before we can fill those storage bins with winter squash or stuff the cupboards with canned tomatoes, we have to get to the task of building the soils in which to grow them.
Unfortunately, mass agriculture methods have stripped soils of their vitality:
- Monocultures have the tendency to deplete soils of whatever nutrients the cash crop likes,
- and then that cash crop is shipped away with all of those nutrients instead of being fed back to the soil to recycle them.
- Large-scale tilling makes the soils susceptible to erosion via wind and rain,
- and it also destroys the web of soil life that helps to cycle organic nutrients into minerals and fertility.
- Furthermore, those organic nutrients are typically removed during the harvest,
- Which is done with massive machinery that compacts the soil so that it has to be tilled.
- That’s before we get into chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, which are about as healthy to soil as living on Slim Fast shakes and antibiotics would be to our bodies.
Without further belabouring this point, which is easy to do, suffice it to say that permaculture approaches soils and food production differently. Nevertheless, inherited soils often need special attention on the route to recovery, and even well-looked-after soils benefit from extra nutrients here and there. After all, it’s difficult to recycle every scrap of food we take from a plot back into it. With that in mind, here’s how to enrich soils without constantly importing minerals and other amendments.
Some plants specialise in going into the soil, mining up the hard-to-reach minerals, and bringing them back to the surface via the plant itself. Theoretically, when these plants die or drop leaves, the nutrients have moved to the soil surface. These are called dynamic accumulators, and we can include them in our gardens simply to cycle minerals back up to the surface where other plants can access them. Luckily, many dynamic accumulators have much more value than just this service. Comfrey is fantastic for attracting bees, as is borage. Chickweed and lambsquarter are delicious and carry high mineral content. And, on the list goes.
Of course, when thinking of dynamic accumulators, one shouldn’t overlook trees and the value of leaf mulch. Dead leaves from trees, because they aren’t crazy rich in nitrogen, get overshadowed in lieu of compost or manure as a soil amendment. However, leaves come from trees, which are fantastic miners of minerals, particularly trace minerals. Using leaves for mulch in the garden and making compost from leaves—something that can often be gathered off-site, i.e. at the neighbour’s curb—adds new nutrients to the garden. Tree leaves are a great way of bringing in nutrients without paying for it.
Dead leaves make wonderful mulch for the garden, but there are a lot of other free resources around that can be used. Mulch is aces for enriching garden soil. Ramial wood chips (from brush) and spent hay are often available for free for those enterprising enough to inquire. Dried grass clippings work wonders for a garden in progress, and fresh grass clippings do well for prepping beds for gardens-to-be. Shredded paper and cardboard boxes act as underlayment for more attractive mulches, and while doing so, this paper-based garbage entices earthworms to move into the area.
Much the same as trees, perennial plants are good for soils because they help with stability, feed the soil life with leaf litter and fallen fruits, and provide habitat for wildlife, which in turn drops manure and bodies to be incorporated into the soil. Unlike annual plants, which have to reach maturity in the season, thus require a blitz of nutrients, perennial plants take it slower, giving back as they grow. With that in mind, some plants specialise in stuff, such as nitrogen-fixers. Keeping a good mix of perennial plants in the garden helps to keep the soil healthy.
Compost & Worm Castings
Compost is a must when maintaining garden soils. Think of it this way: All those vegetables and fruits we gather from the garden required nutrients to grow, so in order to keep those nutrients within the system, we have to cycle them back. That means utilising veggie scraps, as well as learning to work with humanure. Vegetable scraps can be quickly put back into the system by utilising worm farms. Composting toilets not only provide safe, fertile compost, but they also dramatically reduce household water usage. Compost bins and worm farms are a top priority on the homesteaders list of must-haves.
For those of us trying to make a living at the farmers market, keeping our soil healthy will require reapplying the soil nutrients that we have sold off with each zucchini or pumpkin. That ultimately requires imports of some sort. Home production allows us to compost and reapply the nutrients we’ve taken from the soil. Therein lies the quandary of earning a living from the market garden: How do we do so and keep the soil up-to-snuff? Home production, providing us with in-house nutrient cycles, helps to maintain the soil’s oomph. Anytime items are being shipped off site, there needs to be a plan for recouping those nutrients.
For those who heat and/or cook with wood, clean wood ash (no paint or preservatives) is a fantastic mineral builder for soil. This isn’t to say burn stuff just for the ash, which would be bad practice for the environment. However, the “waste” created from heating and cooking can provide a prized soil amendment. While it is true that wood ash is alkaline (and that’s important to recognise), lime—a common soil amendment—is revered despite having the same characteristic. Ash only contains about half the calcium lime does, but it brings a lot of other minerals to the mix. It’s just a matter of minding the pH balance of things. If alkalinity is an issue, compost the wood ash first.
Oddly, growing extra stuff can be really good for replenishing soil nutrients. Some cover crops—oats and rye, for example—will infuse the soil with sugars that sing a siren song for beneficial microbes, and some cover crops—alfalfa and fava beans, for example—fix nitrogen into the soil. Daikon radishes can be great for loosening up compacted soils, buckwheat is amazing for outcompeting unwanted herbs, and winter peas or vetch can provide a cold-hardy ally for winter months, when the big-name crops are coming in.