Soils R Us

The Road to Resilience


There are two incubators of life on this planet: the oceans and other bodies of water and the soil.  All of the oxygen and food on Earth is created in those two media.  In the oceans, lakes, and rivers, it is the phytoplankton that make about 50 percent of our oxygen.  The larger plants do the rest, in conjunction with a living soil, which is made up of a sea of microbial and fungal life.  Given sufficient sun, water, minerals, and interaction with a plethora of plants and animals, soil will grow and thrive.  Our stewardship of those soils is what I want to discuss.

If we haven’t had the opportunity to really interact with soil, say in a garden or a farm, soil is “dirt,” and if we get some on us, we are “dirty.”  This is a very poor frame to use to characterize what is one of the most important and critical substances to our existence.

We affect the soil by either what we put in it or what we do to it.

As we put things in our soil, we have to understand that if we eat the plants that grow in that soil, we also eat the substances that we put in the soil.  If those substances are herbicides, pesticides, or chemical fertilizers, you will be eating them.  They may be very limited amounts, but many of them will accumulate in your body as well as in all the land, plants, animals, and bodies of water that come in contact with it.  Those toxins also kill the soil itself.  Remember that soil is not an inert medium the plants stand in.  As you stand on the ground, it is literally as alive as if you were standing on the back of a huge whale.

The other way that we kill the soil is by disturbing it.  Soil does not like to be exposed, so, if we scrape the vegetation off of it, weeds will quickly appear to fill the void.  If we poison those weeds so as to leave the soil bare, it will decline and die.  If we turn the soil, as in tilling, cultivating, or plowing, we are upsetting the physical structure of the soil and it will suffer, just as you would if an earthquake occurred every few months and destroyed your house.  You would soon get tired of it and move to Montana.

When the soil is dead, it will degenerate just as a dead whale would.  With nothing to maintain its structure and loft, it will compact, turn to dust and will be carried away by the rain and wind along with all the toxins and other chemicals that were put into it.  According to Alan Savory, a trainload of soil 116 miles long leaves the country every day.  In the world, erosion accounts for the loss of about 1.7 billion tons of soil every year.  The soil carries with it pollutants that kill vast areas in our lakes and oceans and releases CO2 and more aggressive greenhouse gases like nitrous oxide into the atmosphere.

What all this means is that we need to treat our soil as we know we should treat our bodies.  We mind what we put into it and protect it from harmful exposure or disruption.

This weekend, there will be a forum on gardening without the toxins Roundup, Weed and Feed, and Preen. It will run from 10 to 11:30 on Saturday at the Chautauqua school.  Michael Laurie of Garden Green will begin by providing a summary of attempts to control toxins on Vashon so far.   Diane Emerson, also of Garden Green, will discuss effective alternatives to toxins. Shannon Britton, Groundskeeper and Landscape Manager for Seattle University will talk about how she has managed 50 acres of lawns, athletic fields, trees, and shrubs without toxins for the last 20 years.  Rob Peterson and Joanne Jewell, owners of Plum Forest Farm, a USDA certified organic farm on Vashon, will talk about how they manage their farm without pesticides or herbicides.  John Yates, of Ace Hardware, will talk about why they still carry these herbicides and alternatives they also carry.  Tanner Yelkin, of Island Home Center, will explain why they decided to remove these products from their shelves, what they sell to replace them, and what reactions they have gotten from their customers.

There was going to be a regenerative agriculture panel after that consisting of farmers from Regenerate Nebraska, who were going to describe their efforts with no till, cover cropping, planned rotational grazing, and their contribution to climate change mitigation.  Apparently, Costco decided to invade Nebraska with a mega corporate chicken production operation that would be wholly controlled by them.  The farmers decided that they needed to stay on the home front to fight Costco.  We will miss their discussion but perhaps there time is better served back home.

At least the gardening without Insecticides meeting will give you some insights into how to manage what is probably the most important resource in your life besides oxygen:  your soil.
Hope you can make it.