Soil life (what happens in the soil)
What do we mean by Soil Life?
Soil is not just a solid mass. Besides its solid parts consisting of soil particles, it is also made up of countless intermediate spaces. These pores gave rise to the concept of soil life because they form a very large habitat for various microorganisms.
More than 10 billion creatures live in just one liter of soil, starting with the smallest microorganisms such as bacteria and protozoa, algae, fungi, and mites, right through to insects, earthworms, and even small mammals such as our mole. That is significantly more living beings than there are people on earth.
Depending on the soil layer and depth, different organisms can be found that have adapted to their respective environment in the course of evolution. This means that completely different organisms live in the top layers of soil than at a depth of 20 or 30 cm. This is related to the natural composition of the soil in terms of humus and water balance, oxygen, and the entire soil structure.
You can compare the soil to an organism. It has also been called the digestive tract of the earth. The soil, with its large number of soil creatures, basically forms the basis of our life on earth. Without the soil and its multitude of microorganisms, we humans would not be able to grow anything on it to feed ourselves. The earth would be bare and desolate; Plantlife would not be possible.
Due to modern agriculture, the cultivated areas in most high-tech agricultural countries are largely dead due to constant and intensive use and the cultivation of pure monocultures. They often only serve as “carriers” for cultures that are artificially cultivated with fertilizers and pesticides to be raised.
This has consequences for the health of the plants and animals that live on the soil. Depletion of soil life leads to the increased formation of toxic fungi and bacteria that can poison plants and animals. This is due to the unhealthy activities of man which has ended up assaulting the soil more than ever.
If you call the earth, the soil on which our food grows, the organism or digestive organ of the earth, which it is on closer reflection, then these impoverished soils have an immune disease that would certainly be fatal to us as humans.
What Happens in the Soil?
Life thrives in the soil
When we look at life on earth, we usually think of the sea, the air, and the land. We often forget the many creatures under our feet.
They are extremely important for our lives and our nature. In one square meter of soil, thirty centimeters deep, there are around eighty earthworms, fifty isopods, a million nematodes, and ciliates, a billion fungi, and a trillion bacteria! So we can say: life is raging at our feet!
Nature designed the earth’s structure according to a specific order, which is based on the oxygen content of the soil.
Good soil with many coarse pores, lots of leaf litter, and a balanced soil climate can look forward to rich soil life. The decomposition of organic matter is at the top of the list of tasks for soil organisms.
Living organisms break down organic materials such as leaves, dead animals, and plant remains, and the nutrients stored in them are made available again.
This allows new plants to grow. So the most fundamental function of the soil is the creation of living space.
Water balance, filtration, and reservoir; all in the soil
Our soil can store large amounts of water. Depending on the condition, more or less or for a longer or shorter time. The sandy soil does not hold water as long as clay soil. Natural soil with a high proportion of organic material, i.e. plant residues, fungi, bacteria, and other soil organisms, holds the water best and then releases it gradually. Such soils also form important buffer zones outside the garden, which slowly release the water and thus counteract floods.
Humus, mineral soil, and rock, i.e. the upper layers of the soil, protect the groundwater from substances of all kinds, filter it and keep it clean. Filtering the water is another important function of the soil.
The massive responsibility of climate protection happens in the soil
Besides these impressive properties, the soil has another important function: it influences the climate – on a large scale, but also a small scale.
We all know the phenomenon when the city centers are almost unbearably hot during summer but are quite pleasant in the countryside.
The reason is because of the evaporation of water from the plants and the unsealed soil spaces.
These cool down the air noticeably faster than it does over paved roads. The evaporated water also increases air humidity.
Soil and climate are in a mutual relationship that is easily thrown off balance by human activities.
Soils are also important carbon stores. They store five times as much carbon as all life above Earth and twice as much as our atmosphere.
About half of the carbon gets into the soil through the plants and is stored there. However, this can only happen if the plants grow in the soil and also rot there.
In the course of the degradation processes of the soil, they release the carbon as carbon dioxide.
The soil as a provider that we must protect
Besides all these abilities, soil secures our nutrition! About half of our earth’s space is used for agriculture – and that requires fertile soil. The use of too many fertilizers, too frequent and intensive tillage, and the use of pesticides endanger fertility. Tillage should be done following the principles of good professional practice. Organically grown fruit and vegetables can be a solution for the consumer.
Dead soil requires artificial fertilizers and other chemical aids to be able to replace the nutrients and natural defense mechanisms necessary for the successful cultivation of crops, which the soil and the plants growing on it can no longer provide themselves.
What does that tell us? We have little influence on the agricultural industry, which is under enormous pressure to perform and there are few ways out. But the preservation and care of soil life in the most comprehensive and natural variety possible should always be important to us in our garden. Because if you want to harvest healthy vegetables from healthy beds with healthy soil, you know about the protection and care of soil life and promote this through targeted measures.
How do we protect the soil?
A whole series of measures promotes soil life. Here are just the most important:
Carry out Mulching
Mulching entails covering the soil with a layer of natural, organic matter which keeps weeds at bay, keeps the soil moist, protects it from too much sunlight, and stimulates soil life. In this way, a good crumb structure (soil fermentation) should be created in the soil, which results in a more fertile soil condition.
Applying Organic Fertilizer
Organic fertilizers include compost, manure, herb manure, horn shavings, and all other non-chemical-based and toxic-free fertilizers that help recover soil life. Organic fertilizers do not disrupt the soil flora.
Green manure helps loosen the soil and build humus.
This entails the promotion of soil life through mutual resistance. For example, vegetables when planted with other types of compatible vegetables help better soil life. The reason for this lies in the various metabolic products that are released into the soil by the roots of the plants and perform a wide variety of tasks there. Some of them break down minerals and other substances for the supply of nutrients, while others have a pesticide effect and are intended to keep diseases, pests or competitors away.
Similar to mixed farming, crop rotation helps preserve humus. When crops are changed frequently, their different root compositions have a way of helping build and preserve the humus in the soil.
The Charcoal Measure
Years ago, a man-made, very humus-rich, and extremely fertile soil was discovered in the Amazon, which was called Terra Preta because of its black color.
The very high fertility of the black earth, which has lasted for centuries, and its production were a secret for the researchers for a long time. What was known was that the terra preta was produced centuries ago by the Indians who lived in the Amazon region at the time and that it still lies there today
in thick, unchanged fertile layers. This is unusual above all because humic soils in the tropics or subtropics can neither form nor survive under natural conditions.
However, these soils have not been worked for centuries and are still black, humic, and fertile. They were no longer used because the Indians were almost completely wiped out by a secret weapon used by the conquistadors, which the Spaniards themselves knew nothing about at the time – the measles.
Today we know how these piles of earth were made. The secret lies mainly in the pyrogenic carbon, which was introduced into the existing soil using charcoal.
Charcoal consists almost entirely of pyrogenic carbon, which, unless burned, remains stable in the soil for thousands of years and does not dissolve. Presumably, the Indians did their toilet in clay jars and showered every shop with ash and coal. Full vessels were then planted and later, after sufficient composting, brought to the fields – and this for thousands of years.
In addition to a very sensible nutrient cycle from the field to the people and back to the field, the Indians have thus created the stable humus in a very natural way, which has survived the centuries unchanged, without completely mineralizing within a few years like normal humus, for example from compost.
Nutrients that are added to the Terra Preta through manure, compost, wood ash, or other fertilizers are retained much better and longer in this natural substrate than in any other soil.
What Activities are Bad for Soil life?
- Compaction in any form (due to driving over it with heavy vehicles or relatively narrow wheels)
- Capping (due to too much water or water movement in and on the ground)
- Expose to sun rays (harvested, bare soil in the hot late summer sun)
- Exposing soil uncovered to frosty winds (erosion of fine particles by wind during frost)
- Monocultures (especially growing the same plants over and over again)