The Subterranean Dance: Plants, Nutrients, Water and Their Relationship in Soil Health

The western coast of North America is home to an amazing array of landscapes each with its particular climate and range of soils.  This is in the California coastal range looking southerly towards the distant Bay area across meadow, native Coast Live Oak, Doug Fir and the Coast Redwood of the Armstrong Grove in the lower creek bottom land.

The western coast of North America is home to an amazing array of landscapes each with its particular climate and range of soils. This is in the California coastal range looking southerly towards the distant Bay area across meadow, native Coast Live Oak, Doug Fir and the Coast Redwood of the Armstrong Grove in the lower creek bottom land.

Third in the Water Series

As I seem to keep repeating, water, makes life possible. Plants and animals, with too little, die. Soil, in a very real sense is alive as well, and requires water to animate it. Without water the teeming organisms that occupy and comprise it, die or lie dormant until they are rehydrated. Topsoil, that thin layer upon which all terrestrial plants rely, is a swarming, largely invisible, community. Its effect on all life are essential and intimate. Topsoil is where all of terrestrial life is grounded. It’s health and vitality reflects that of the life on the surface including our own. As humans we are essentially consumers and, if we are to survive, stewards of the life upon which we depend. Plants are the creators. That is perhaps a bit simplistic because the relationship between plant, animal and earth is considerably more complicated. Life has evolved together, each species, each element, and, because of this, is part of an integrated whole.

Terrestrial plants are rooted into the soil. They draw energy from the sun and carbon dioxide, and oxygen, from the atmosphere. From the soil comes all of the other material with which plants build cells and life. They draw them into their vascular system via their roots. But what is really going on at this interface?

Many of us were taught in soil class, that soil was largely inert. It was little more than a medium that conducts water and nutrients…and there were a whole lot of negatives that one had to contend with. It possessed certain fixed physical characteristics largely determined by the parent rock material and the time over which it developed. It can be described by its texture and other physical properties, its percentages of organic matter, clay, sand and loam. Its tilth and crumb structure, porosity, degree of compaction and ‘bulk density’. It was ‘built’ in layers over time in characteristic ways that can be ‘read’ by digging or coring and reading its profile, its depth. And, because of these physical characteristics its drainage rate will vary. Soils have chemical attributes as well. It has a particular pH that indicates its relative acidity/alkalinity (determined, still oddly to me, by the balance of H+ and OH- ions. Electrical charges? Yes, really. More H+ and it’s acid, makes the soil taste sour. You can taste an electrical charge? Okay then.). We can also measure the available level of various nutrients/minerals released very slowly from the parent material. We have learned, however, that this is only part of the picture, that the physical characteristics are intimately and necessarily associated with the ‘life’ in the soil and, to a large degree, are ameliorated by them. Life in the soil makes possible life on the soil as well as the reverse. This topsoil interface is where everything happens. And, again, it is water, which is the vehicle through which this is possible.

Looking out across Elkhorn Slough at Monterey Bay, where the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers empty into the Pacific close to the distant generation plant at Moss Landing.  The Slough once lost to agriculture and the commercial production of salt is still in the process of reclamation.  Research is still being conducted here on the Slough, its Marshes and Uplands.

Looking out across Elkhorn Slough at Monterey Bay, where the Pajaro and Salinas Rivers empty into the Pacific close to the distant generation plant at Moss Landing. The Slough, once lost to agriculture and the commercial production of salt, is still in the process of reclamation. Research on the Slough, its Marshes and Uplands is ongoing..

What follows is a ‘conversational’ presentation of soil life for the layman. Those of you whose interest is piqued by this might look into the educational materials created by Dr. Elaine Ingham who has been studying, writing about and teaching about the ‘Soil Food Web’ for decades now here in Oregon. Check out her website for information on classes, books and many other resources here.

People often don't even think of sand as soil, but it is.  This is a picture of the ongoing dune reclamation project at Asilomar on the Monterey peninsula.  Propagating much of the material they use on site, including several threatened endemics, they are successfully keeping invasives at bay and minimizing the damage to the surface soil crust that even casual visitor use can inflict.

People often don’t even think of sand as soil, but it is. This is a picture of the ongoing dune reclamation project at Asilomar on the Monterey peninsula. Propagating much of the material they use on site, including several threatened endemics, they are successfully keeping invasives at bay and minimizing the damage to the surface soil crust that even a casual visitor use can inflict.

Simply stated nutrients are released by the soil and are conducted by the water to the roots and into the plant. The plant, as I explained in an earlier posting, ‘pumps’ the water through its vascular tissues physically drawing water from wetter parts of the soil closer to the roots. Minerals, dissolved in solution, are pulled in with it. This ‘soil water’ does not move freely through the soil. Think of earthen damns built to retain water behind them. Dense, fine textured soils, like compacted clay, present a barrier to freely moving water. Loose, coarse textured soils allow water to move more freely. Tiny soil particles rest more closely together than do coarse particles and tend to have smaller ‘gaps’ in between them for water to move through. Smaller particles, like clay, also have more total surface area than say do sand particles in a given volume of soil. This matters because water tends to adhere to surfaces which slows its movement more in finer textured or compacted soils. This is one of the reasons we speak of soil having ‘good tilth’. Such soil has a loose aggregated structure. Soil particles are held in a ‘crumb structure’ that is bound together with organic exudates from roots and hyphae. These crumbs have an irregular shape which help create an overall porous structure through which water can more freely move. Such a structure also allows roots to more thoroughly penetrate and ‘colonize’ the soil so that the water does not have to travel as far. So, when it rains or we irrigate, the water moves down through the soil picking up various free, water soluble nutrients and, if no roots are available to ‘retrieve’ them, the water and nutrients may move down eventually into the water table.

Many soils occur in a very thin layer like this found high in the hills of the East Bay Regional Park system.  This is a serpentine soil high in trace minerals like Selenium that can be toxic to many plants and low in organic content.

Many soils occur in a very thin layer like this found high in the hills of the East Bay Regional Park system. This is a serpentine soil high in trace minerals like Selenium that can be toxic to many plants and low in organic content.  Note the ‘bluish’ color that is characteristic of these soils that extend from southern Oregon well down into California’s central Coast.

Nutrients are not all available at one time. Remember, many of them must be freed from the parent soil material first utilizing water and organic acids. Some of these minerals, like Phosphorous, tend to ‘adsorb’ (it’s not a misspelling. Adsorb means to ‘stick’ to.) to the surfaces of soil particles in a very thin water layer. They do not move freely with water. They must be drawn off by diffusion first, moving from an area of high concentration to one of lower. These nutrients tend to stay more in place requiring that the plant ‘come to them’. Other nutrients, most notably Nitrogen, are more water-soluble and move with the physical movement of water. If Nitrogen were completely ‘free’ it might very well all be carried away from plant roots by downward water movement. Ideally, plants grow best in those soils that possess the physical characteristics that allow this dance of root growth, water movement and diffusion, that lets them best meet their particular needs, always remembering that the nutrient and water requirements of different plants can be very different. Different plants…different soils.

Another 'thin' soil, this time at Catherine Creek in Washington state.  This Columbia River Gorge site is very wet in spring and is very popular site for wildflower aficionados.  Here is seen Death Camas.  Grass Widows were finishing elsewhere, while Fritillaria also bloomed here, with Camas ramping up and a whole other group of flowers bloomed along its basalt edges and uplifts.

Another ‘thin’ soil, this time at Catherine Creek in Washington state. This Columbia River Gorge site is very wet in spring and is a popular site for wildflower aficionados. Death Camas is scattered here across the meadow.. Grass Widows were finishing elsewhere, while Fritillaria also bloomed here, with Camas ramping up and a whole other group of flowers blooming along its basalt edges and uplifts.  Ponderosa pine rims the meadow while Oregon White Oak is scattered in small ‘groves’.

In a very real sense the soil is a ‘bank’ of mineral nutrients and different soils hold different quantities of nutrients. Organic mater in soil and clay particles themselves can ‘hold’ on to nutrients such Ammonia (which contains Nitrogen) while soils low in clay and organic matter can’t (This is a process called cationic exchange. Clay and organic particles tend to have a negative charge, extra electrons, molecules like ammonia have a positive charge and thus are attracted and held until they are ‘knocked’ off. The more positively charged molecules there are in the soil the more weakly they are held to the clay and organic particles. So, the more nitrogen in the soil the less strongly it is held and the more available it is to plants). Such soils are often considered to be ‘richer’ than soils containing little clay and organic material. This is another reason why organic material is often regularly added to soils growing vegetables especially sandy soils. Vegetables require a relatively high amount of nitrogen so that plants can grow ‘rapidly’ synthesizing the amino acids and proteins that they require. Otherwise sandy soils are effectively a hydroponic system that needs to regularly be ‘fed’ nitrogen with routine waterings. For most of us our soils are a given, we do not go to the soil store and buy something different, something better, so it is best to understand the soil that we have, how to ‘conserve’ it and improve it.

Delphinium blooming their buds off beneath the Red Alder and Big Leaf Maple on a wet shelf around the base of Washington state's Cape Horn.

Delphinium blooming their buds off beneath the Red Alder and Big Leaf Maple on a wet shelf around the base of Washington state’s Cape Horn.

Roots: Growth, Surface Area and Absorption

Let’s take a little closer look at the absorption ‘organs’ that plants possess in the form of roots. Overall the roots we see are mostly structural and conductive. The work of absorption is done out at the constantly growing and shedding root tips. This is where the hair roots are ‘born’, thrive for only a few days to a couple of weeks and are shed, the tips constantly growing into soil that both permits this and can offer what the plant needs. These hair roots are extensions of the roots’ epidermis and though they may only be 1 mm or so in length increase the root surface area two to ten times. All growth requires energy. These cells have to metabolize, ‘burn’ fuel in the form of carbohydrates, in order to perform the cell division that results in growth. Metabolism requires O2. It gets this from the surrounding soil. Air must occupy at least part of the pore space in the soil. It cannot be saturated with water. After metabolizing it it is converted to CO2 via the C2 Pathway. The CO2 is then released into the soil and must be able to move away to provide more space for O2. Again, this requires a certain amount of porosity and air for this exchange to occur. These fine hair roots, while relatively short, are very numerous and possess, in total, a tremendous amount of absorbing surface area. But, roots, even including their hair roots, fill a relatively small percentage of the soil volume available to a plant.

Some people have a hard time considering sites like this, near the mouth of Ventana Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the edge of Tucson, AZ, but it is.  And this plant community has evolved very specific adaptations to root and survive here.  Such desert plants are conservative to an extreme and can only be used in wet temperate climates if a lot of careful preparation is made.

Some people have a hard time seeing the soil on  sites like this, near the mouth of Ventana Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains on the edge of Tucson, AZ, but there it is. And this plant community has evolved very specific adaptations to root and survive here. Such desert plants are conservative to an extreme and can only be used in wet temperate climates if a lot of careful preparation is made.

Plant roots have evolved over time in association with mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae, are fungal structures, that, depending on the plant and soil, can grow up to 3” out and away from the roots themselves accessing that much more soil and water, increasing the roots effective surface area 10 times. They also tend to be better adapted at harvesting certain nutrients like Phosphorous than are the roots alone. This is particularly beneficial as Phosphorous is one of the nutrients that is relatively immobile as they are adsorbed to the surface of soil particles. In return the Mycorrhizae benefit by receiving the carbohydrate they need from the plant. Without well aerated and hydrated soil, root growth will be compromised which will compromise the health of the entire plant. In fact the overall growing conditions, friable soil, pH, temperature, properly hydrated and aerobic soil, will limit the availability of nutrients. Nutrients can be in the soil and, at the same time, be unavailable, if the ‘supporting cast is not there or is poorly functioning.

Other sites, like this one, a basalt extrusion, in the High Desert of Oregon's Badlands Wilderness, can almost make you scratch your head.

Other sites, like this one, a basalt extrusion, in the High Desert of Oregon’s Badlands Wilderness, can almost make you scratch your head.  Less than 10″ of annual precipitation, south facing, high altitude so large daily temperature swings and an average minimum of 0F.

Once it gets to the root, the water and nutrients, in the form of mineral ions, ions, again, are either positive or negative because they’ve lost or picked up an extra electron, I know probably too technical, are absorbed through several layers of root tissue before they reach the vascular xylem tissue. Some of this movement is between cells and is more passive, but when it enters the outer epidermis of a cell, the ions are brought through the cell membrane in a kind of reversal of diffusion, coming from outside with relatively low concentrations of the mineral, into the cell where it is higher. To do this takes energy that these cells gain again by metabolizing carbohydrates. They utilize ‘carriers’ to draw ions through the membrane of those minerals they ‘want’. They are selective. To maintain an ‘electrical’ balance inside the plant the roots release H+ or OH- ions. The net effect is slightly more H+ which creates a bit of an acid environment around the roots.

The area immediately surrounding the roots, some times referred to as the rhizosphere, with its lower, more acidic pH, contains more organic acids that increase the solubility and availability of minerals. The roots also exude organic materials that serve as food to microbial organisms in this zone. These microbes in turn create chelates which bind with the minerals making them more readily available to the plant.

This fractured rock face has a northerly aspect and is kept relatively cool by its proximity to the Pacific.  This is at Point Lobos.  Dudleya farinosa grows on its face, the 'soil' it needs is adequate and its roots slowly work to produce more, shedding organic tissue and raising the acidity of its own cramped little 'rhizosphere'.  The Dudleya is further aided by being a CAM plant matching its needs with limited resources available to it.

This fractured rock face has a northerly aspect and is kept relatively cool by its proximity to the Pacific. This is at Point Lobos. Dudleya farinosa grows on its face, the ‘soil’ it needs is adequate and its roots slowly work to produce more, shedding organic tissue and raising the acidity of its own cramped little ‘rhizosphere’. The Dudleya is further aided by being a CAM plant matching its needs with limited resources available to it.

These are processes that have evolved over millions of years, slowly modifying and being passed on to each successive generation. Modern agriculture, in many ways worked to side step these natural processes presuming that man could do it better or maybe setting aside an ideal natural process so that purchased products and services could be offered to a public already sold on the possibility that we can do it better.

‘Modern’ Agriculture, Horticulture and the Practice of Fertilization

I want to address now the idea of fertilization and the fear that the soil will run out of nutrients if we do not intervene. There are a couple of points I want to make first: if this were true, would we have not run out long ago as we are relative newcomers to the scene here on Earth; and, the many sad examples of depleted soils in the world can be traced directly to ‘our’ intervention in the natural processes at work in the healthy landscape. Why then do we find ourselves in the position of annually and continually adding fertilizers to our landscapes and fields? Nature is conservative in the sense that it does not waste anything, it continually recycles, utilizing the energy of the sun, actually building complexity and biomass into the Earth’s systems. It is ‘normal’ for life to flourish. Abundance, over the longer term is to be expected, as is coherence and balance. The Earth and its regions are an integrated whole. It is coherent and therefore, understandable. Chaos, in the form of perturbations occur when this coherence moves too far out of balance. Generally, this does not happen on a large scale without outside energy. There is always a normal up and down cycling on greater and smaller scales.

Normally, nutrients are not lost and as pollutants they don’t contaminate and compromise other landscapes. So, why is this so commonplace in our world today? What has happened to these systems that they no longer work? What depletes our soils? How do healthy soils conserve and build fertility?

This is Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon.  This is a harsh environment as one would expect in a high desert environment.  A free running river along most of its length the benefits of its flow don't extend too far above the river's banks.  The roots of most plant are unlike to penetrate the basalt and tap into the river's flow so the landscape remains lean as does its thin sandy soil.

This is Steelhead Falls on the Deschutes River in Central Oregon. This is a harsh environment as one would expect in a high desert. A free running river along most of its length the benefits of its flow don’t extend too far above the river’s banks. The roots of most plant are unlike to penetrate the basalt and tap into the river’s flow so the landscape remains lean as does its thin sandy soil.  Desert plants can ill afford to waste available water or nutrients.

It’s no secret. Healthy stable plant communities contain the bulk of available mineral nutrients on any given plot of ground. They contain all of the organic carbon compounds the plants have synthesized from water, sunlight, atmosphere and mineral nutrients available to them on the ground. Minerals chelated into a more useable form by microbes. Nitrogen fixed into useable form by rhizobacteria. Water and CO2 broken down and rebuilt through photosynthesis into the cell powering carbohydrates. Trees do not ‘shop’ buying the lignin and cellulose they’ll need for next week at the grocery store…they produce it and store it away in their tissues. Everything needed and used by the plant is locked away in its tissues or returned to the atmosphere and soil. Tissues, sloughed off, feeding microbes and bacteria in the soil. In a dynamic living plant community, everything is held in tissue or being used by the process of life. Life doesn’t stock pile or throw anything away.

When plants die and rot in place they return the same minerals and compounds to the soil and they do this over a period of time as they break down. And they break down at various rates. This is always happening. There are organisms, saprophytes, that consume the dead and decaying tissue, capturing it in the process, holding it in the loop. Many of these are bacteria and fungi. Others include Mollusks like slugs and snails. Their waste, their bodies, in turn feed another loop. Plants and their communities do not have to be taught not to waste. It is in their DNA.

When plants die and are removed from the site, when we harvest or clear them in preparation for another use, we are removing them from the stream, from the normal cycling, and deplete the community in the process. When we do this wholesale, such as has been done in the verdant rain forests of the Amazon and so many other places, we discover how poor the soils are alone. With the living plants and the soil communities they support gone, there is little left to slow the rains from leeching what remains down and away.

These plant communities build complexity into the soil and they act as buffers in the continual ebb and flow of death and life. These communities, which living growing roots and their myccorhizae are an essential part of, are thus lost when harvested or removed. Normally when a plant dies that grows in a community there are others of its species nearby to continue supporting the soil community that is so essential for healthy functioning of them all. The many other species growing in association with each other help fill the ‘gaps’ that one species will inevitably miss. Different species, different roots systems and, consequently, different and even redundant communities overlapping, colonizing different depths with a variety of ‘appetites’ for various minerals and doing so with a range of vigor and efficiency. All of them ‘capturing’ and releasing minerals to meet their own particular requirements, their own schedules, forming a community, a whole! It is like an infinitely complex circle dance where each partner releases and grabs on to the next…no one dropped.

There is no excess in a balanced community. More is attained over time, built on what is already there and what is there is dynamic.

Every soil has a potential if you will. Determined by its mineral and organic components, that fluctuates with the plant community. Its mineral soils are birthed from the parent rock or is blown (loess) or washed (alluvial), in. There are limits to any potential soil. A serpentine soil with its characteristic minerals and concentrations that might be ‘toxic’ in other plant communities, will never by a latourelle loam. Both can support a rich plant community. The serpentine soils of our own Siskiyou region support almost fantastical plant communities. Each such community will be different. Soils contain the base material upon which a plant community lives. It would make no sense if every soil supported identical communities. But in a way this is what many of us expect.

The Damage Done

We have scrapped away whole plant communities and then, somehow, expect the soil to keep producing the seemingly endless bounty it historically has. But when we do this, we don’t just strip away the bank of nutrients that were once there and grow them back, we have immediately and profoundly changed the community, pulling away an almost endless list of necessary and dependent members of a supporting cast. Gone are the rhizobacteria, the microbes and bacteria and fungi that were part of the supporting casts in the countless overlapping orbits of the rhizosphere. Even the pH changes without the roots there doing the dance of ions that are essential to them. All of the various and many bacteria and microbes, many of them dependent on a narrow range of plant species and, not unusually on only one, simply disappear. When we strip the soil of plant life we in a very real sense are killing the soil ending its ability to bank and conserve what has kept it so vibrant.

The rain falls on the depleted ground leeching away what remains of the nutrients once caught up in the dance of the living with little remaining to hold them but a rapidly oxidizing organic layer and the charged soil particles clinging to what they can. Water, which had once been an essential element of the community, now in its absence, helps ‘complete’ this process of diminishment. Falling on bare soil, rain strikes with force to compact the upper layers. As it percolates down through the profile it leeches away the organic compounds that once helped ‘glue’ soil particles into ‘crumbs’, because there are no roots or hyphae there to replenish the compounds. The soil breaks down, losing porosity, becoming denser, wetter as the water’s movement slows. Soil becomes more compacted, with less air for the gaseous exchange necessary to cell metabolism in growing and actively absorbing roots. The soil becomes less hospitable to the return of the very plants it needs to recover, making it all the more difficult for the many ‘natives’ that once belonged there, closing the door to many but the most aggressive growers. All of this is set in motion, without adding in the further complication that comes with our pattern of urban development and that is the compaction caused by the traffic and use by so many people in our unnaturally dense cities. Wet, stripped, depleted soils are without any defense at all to protect themselves from the further degradation of heavy compaction.

This is the condition, at best, of most of our urban soils. At best, because it is very common for these soils to be heavily graded, even cut and filled on developed sites. On these lands the soil profile is completely destroyed along with its capacities developed over millennia. Soils are dredged up from river bottoms, graded off of ‘high’ ground and tumbled into low spots and ravines, in the process of creating developable land. Profiles are tumbled and mixed often buried beneath uniform and screened sub-soil. Roadways are built, the Earth becomes an architect’s and engineer’s creation with soils incidental, generally viewed as malleable and problematic as their urban vision takes form across the landscape. The land becomes dissected, into discrete parcels, repurposed or held ‘vacant’ until economic need drives its development. Land has become private property with strict lines of demarcation redolent with the power of ‘no’. The land sits in limbo, suspended, as if life can be interrupted and restarted again at will. Then we acquire it, or our neighbors do or perhaps some commercial interest and these pieces of land are bent to the will’s of transient owners, their tenants…the land’s fate lying wholly in the ‘owners’ hands.

Agriculture and Gardening: The Burden of Choice

A vineyard just outside Windsor, CA.  I don't know anything about this operation in terms of its use of agrichemical inputs.  In my ignorance, it is beautiful

A vineyard just outside Windsor, CA. I don’t know anything about this operation in terms of its use of agrichemical inputs. In my ignorance, it is beautiful

Some of us choose to garden on ‘our’ land. We take advice from friends, read a book or two, maybe even take a class and plunge in bringing life back to the soil…there are several competing models to choose from. We hear a lot of dictums about the power of nature, but few of them really address how profoundly broken our landscape is only how we should proceed. These advices are not always grounded in the experience that can only come from close relationship with place over time. They are formulaic, rudimentary, beginning places. They probably need to be. And, depending on their source, they can be shaped by the very same thinking that has ignored the healthy functioning of dynamic and balanced plant communities. Some of the advice is good. Some promises a kind of perpetual ‘servitude’ that will demand an almost ‘ritualistic’ adherence to many of the same practices that got us to this point and now keeps us here. It often ignores the potential of a landscape to heal itself, or offers little to the gardener regarding their specific and changing role as their garden and soils evolve.

We add compost to build up the depleted organic content of our soil and this is a good start, but it is not the same as the humus layer built up over time from a balanced plant community, especially when we continue our cyclic practices of tillage, simplistic planting schemes, harvest and bare soil, all of which depletes this same organic content. Some, in their ‘fetish’ for neatness, regularly add a uniform blanket of mulch and then carefully remove the detritus and decay of their own plants. Others may chip it up and compost it before returning it to the garden. Others buy it in and carefully cover the ground around their sensibly spaced plants, something that never happens in nature, or plant in one species sweeps, or productive rows, again, schemes that don’t happen in nature. Others fill these spaces with green covers or a mixed community of woody, herbaceous and evergreen plants from disparate parts of the world. Which way is right? It is difficult to say. The starting point though is to leave no bare soil. The next step should be toward a green living cover and after that building a diverse plant community that is capable of capturing the solar energy that would otherwise power the growth of weeds and will also fill the topsoil with a matrix of roots to capture nutrients.

As gardeners we are ideally situated to watch and learn, too modify our practice or the content of the plant community and gauge the overall response of the landscape to our work. We should be continually assessing our own impacts asking ourselves how does nature accomplish this function? Nature does not haul in organic matter from offsite. Nor does it ‘irrigate’. It does not scrupulously weed out interlopers…it waits for them to spend themselves and die unceremoniously. But nature is not geared to quickly re-establishing plant communities on disturbed and contaminated ‘dead’ sites. We as gardeners are waking up to find ourselves in the position of land steward. We should be looking to nature’s own ways of conserving and building and follow them as best we can constantly reassessing our impacts, looking for signs and suggestions to modify our practice. Nature did not create the situation we now find ourselves in, but it can offer us nuanced signs as to whether we are on the right track. It requires that we be open and wise enough to the fact that it is our passed practices, as individuals and as a society, that got us into this predicament and that, to get ourselves out of it, and return our soils and landscapes to a state of health, we have to change both our practice and the paradigm under which our society has been living. No easy task.

This is the teaching garden of the UC at Santa Cruz's Agroecology program.  They also operate a farm on campus conducting research, providing internships and a variety of undergraduate and graduate progams as well community education and outreach.

This is the teaching garden of the UC Santa Cruz’s Agroecology program. They also operate a farm on campus conducting research, providing internships and a variety of undergraduate and graduate progams as well community education and outreach. The program was started over 30 years ago.

In a sense when farmers and fellow gardeners resort to a regime of fertilization it should serve as a signal to us that we have failed. We are utilizing, very often, a fixed/limited resource to compensate for the huge and ongoing losses of fertility that our soils suffer routinely…as a direct result of our practices. Such use assures that we will continue down the same precarious and destructive path. Nutrients continue to leech away into streams and groundwater and each year replaced in an endless cycle of chemical/manufactured applications. These fertilizers are chemical concoctions formulated to bypass the need for healthy soil communities turning our landscapes and farms into little more than massive hydroponic projects practiced in a ‘sterile’ medium. The countless organisms and microbes that once comprised healthy soil have been rendered unnecessary by the agrichemical ‘industry’. We find ourselves today perpetually in the position of having to fulfill all of the tasks and healthy functions that soil once did for us for ‘free’. We are consuming ever more energy and minerals, in doing so, that ultimately are lost to a sink in the form of pollution.

The use of such agricultural chemicals and their attendant cultural practices, alter the soil chemistry and, do in fact, inhibit the formation and colonization of soils by the very microbes and bacteria that in a healthy system would be working naturally to accomplish the same task cleanly, without waste. Our practice of mono-cropping and simplistic planting schemes assures that soils will not regain the vibrancy and health they once had and that we desperately need them to return to. Knowing this, the use of such chemical inputs, these fertilizers, should be limited in time, to act as a kind of booster to jumpstart a plant community in a landscape. That the loss of fertility goes hand in hand with the loss of a healthy soil system is undeniable and the goal should be to foster its return. It is a chicken and egg story…which came first…both.

Then, near the opposite extreme, are some of the coastal rain forest areas of British Columbia.  This trail to China Beach on the SW coast of Vancouver Island, is densely wooded with a ground layer consisting of little more than Western Sword Fern.  Roots are exposed and the trail improvements are the only thing that keeps this popular trail to the beach open during much of the year.

Then, near the opposite extreme, are some of the coastal rain forest areas of British Columbia. This trail to China Beach on the SW coast of Vancouver Island, is densely wooded with a ground layer consisting of little more than Western Sword Fern. Roots are exposed and the trail improvements are the only thing that keeps this popular trail to the beach open during much of the year.  While this is a protected provincial Park it has been cut.  A guide told us that Spruce from this area went into the “Spruce Goose’.  I wonder about the consequent loss of soil richness and the closely spaced regrowth is probably contributing to the thin understory.

This shows the much more complex understory of the forest edge above China Beach itself.

This shows the much more complex understory of the forest edge above China Beach itself.

We will no doubt, at some point, run up against the same problem on our industrialized timber lands which are periodically cleared off, then replanted with only the desired productive species and, especially during the establishment years, kept ‘clear’ of competing brush and other species that might ‘compete’ with the ‘crop’ plants’ optimal growth. Waste is commonly burned on site. Forests as mono-crops harvested on a long, for humans, cycle. Again this can’t continue indefinitely. Such sites can also be subject to tremendously high rates of surface erosion as these practices are conducted on ever-steeper terrain as lumber prices make harvesting on difficult sites more profitable and lower quality growth is taken and processed into a broadening array of ‘wood products’. Limited buffers remain along roadways, at least on public lands, intended to screen the public from the worst situations and along perennial streams in a legally defined and minimal attempt to maintain stream flow, temperatures and quality as a limited protection for fish runs. As in agriculture, the whole notion of maintaining a complex forest/soil system, such as could be carried on using selective logging while maintaining the overall health of the ecosystem, is dismissed as not cost effective. This is only possible because the environmental costs are thoroughly discounted and deferred to some future date if acknowledged at all.

Different Pieces of the Same Puzzle

If we are being honest about this we should recognize our relationship with the agrichemical industry for what it is…an intrusion, that has wheedled its way into our lives and the world of agriculture, silviculture and horticulture. It has made itself ‘necessary’. Without the created need for it, in a world in which the naturally operating cycles of healthy soils and plant communities are intact, we would have a very limited need for it and they would be in no position to extort the level of profits that they command today. They are purveyors of fear every bit as much as they are of the chemical products upon which today’s ‘modern’ agriculture has come to depend and we will remain dependent upon them for as long as we continue in this practice. They are necessary to ‘modern agriculture’. You cannot simply turnoff the spigot and continue planting unbroken acreages of corn, soybeans and wheat.  You must change your practice. Industrial agriculture is a complex and expensive system of food production. Relying heavily on petroleum and mined mineral inputs. Organic farming demands a more intimate scale, with integrated planting schemes, utilizing a variety of crops at the same time and an infinitely more intimate knowledge of where one is. The developing practice of the less well known methods of ‘Permaculture’, which relies more on ‘permanent’ plantings in addition to many common organic farming strategies including the use of livestock and non-tillage, promises a more positive future as well.

To change will require a huge commitment in time, to ‘re-education’ and, eventually, the redistribution of most of the land presently held corporately. The effort will be on the same scale as that necessary to move us away from our consumptive hunger for petroleum based energy. Both are made all the more difficult by the fact that they are such huge sectors of our economy. Ultimately that is what is required, a transformation of our economy a daunting task, a journey that each one of us can begin on our own and in our communities and will be made all the easier when we come to realize that all of these complex transformations are part of the same task and that moving toward one, moves us toward all of them. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to ‘freeze’ the economy into the massive, inefficient and unresponsive machine that it is today. All of these economic sectors today perform only one thing well, the transference of wealth from the many to the few. It can be argued that this is its primary purpose as it does almost everything else so poorly.

Nature builds complexity and health over time. The industrial model is one of extraction, of using up before moving on, of boom and bust, as resources are played out and spent. Do we really think that this model is sustainable? It’s wrongness is reflected in the profligate waste of so many resources including of water and the squandering of soil fertility. In the end we will all suffer, but in the short term it will be business as usual, leaving the poor and those least able to fend for themselves to suffer alone. Ultimately, even the most powerful will be laid low. It has always been thus and cannot be any other way. The chronic long time misuse of resources will play out in a simple predictable pattern, if we do not redirect our efforts. It is a scenario that the world has seen before toppling earlier civilizations on a more localized scale than the monolithic collapse that faces our global culture today. Such collapses have been tied to the exhaustion of some essential resource. It won’t be tragedy that befalls us it will be hubris. Gardening in our own yards can begin to teach us the way, if we are open, aware and ready to ask the appropriate questions.

Conclusion: Ending the Disruption of Maintenance  and Creating Site Specific Plant Communities

Healthy soils possess vibrant and diverse soil communities which in turn supports the life on its surface. These have evolved in relationship to one another. Each is necessary to all of the others. Remove or alter one and accommodations must be made to insure that the healthy cycling of energy and resources continues. This is doable and in fact plays out every day around the globe in the dance of life and death that is ongoing. Problems begin to occur when certain scales of change occur over shorter time periods. In a healthy system if a change is imposed, that is not too great, given enough time, without additional disruption, a system will right itself regaining its balance. Too great and wide spread a single change or too many different changes in a given time period and the correction or rebalancing cannot be regained without ‘assistance’. Also, when such changes are imposed on a system, the new balance will resemble the old one, but won’t be identical to it. There is elasticity in the system, not rigidity.

Healthy soil systems require a degree of stasis. If they are constantly subject to outside disruption they will reflect this with internal perturbations and declines in both the complexity and abundance of life that they contain. Any patch of Earth in today’s world has suffered disruption, some may be relatively minor while many others are on a more ‘cataclysmic’ scale. Especially in urban and industrial zones, but also in agricultural regions, soils have literally been upended, stripped of their supporting life and even had the sun and movement of water through and around them radically altered. They have often been built upon, contaminated with industrial chemicals and maintained as various kinds of ‘waste’ areas for years. As I have written elsewhere, the single most important thing that we can do is to stop this continual cycle of disruption that we have been subjecting our landscapes to. No healing can begin while that continues. The second thing to do is to plant our landscapes in a way that is sensitive to the conditions on the sites and then monitor them, making, as simple as we can, any ‘corrections’ when time shows that our intervention is needed. We have to learn something we have been historically very poor at, patience. We have to trust that nature, at its core, contains an integrity that builds toward balance and complexity. It did this for billions of years before we were here. It is doing it now and will continue into the distant future. But, it simply can’t respond instantaneously to the barrage of change and abuse that we are daily inflicting on it.

We have ‘broken’ these landscape systems. We have spread weeds around the globe that nature now attempts to heal itself with by covering our wounded landscapes. We have changed the plant equation on any given piece of ground by changing the growing conditions and the plants that are available today for its ‘healing’. We have brought weeds to various regions that essentially have no ‘defense’ against them. If we expect the world to be healthy once again within a time frame that is meaningful to us, we must take some responsibility as the dominant factor in the destruction of the landscapes we are beginning to realize that we have always been dependent upon. To not take this responsibility is to write ourselves out of the equation. The world will change. It will attain a new balance and it will be one that does not include us or will only allow our participation as a very reduced population.

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