The Importance of soil – Our lives depend on it!

It’s the first time in a long while since I have had the opportunity to sit at my computer to do something other than check my email, pay bills and write up invoices.  It doesn’t seem like it was too long ago I felt tethered to my computer as I was preparing presentation after presentation for our Spring Gardening Series at the New Canaan Library.   I’m not complaining at all – I have been blessed with nine weeks of solid gardening after a winter of 60+ inches of snow.  Our time following the thaw started off in April amending and seeding our raised beds and those of our clients.  Amending the soil on an annual basis is what we consider one of the most important steps in the process.

“Essentially, all life depends upon the soil … There can be no life without soil and no soil without life; they have evolved together.”
Charles E. Kellogg, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1938

Before becoming a full-time professional gardener and an accredited organic land care professional three years ago – I used to research food, water, and agribusiness companies for my brother’s investment company.  Over the course of a decade or more of reading about companies directly involved with our food production, my understanding of the importance soil plays in growing healthy fruits and vegetables has grown exponentially.

Today we find ourselves in a situation where the US and much of the world’s inventory of arable topsoil has been lost due to erosion, overuse of inorganic nitrogen fertilizers and other farming practices that leave the soil depleted.  Our planet is losing its usable topsoil at a considerable rate [75 to 100 GT per year].  What does that mean – basically it means   it’s estimated that there will only be about 48 years of topsoil left, if we keep up the pace.

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all.”
Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, 1977

Fact: Food grown in nutrient deficient soil lacks the nutrients necessary to keep people healthy and declines in the nutritional values in food have been attributed to mineral depletion of the soil, loss of soil microorganisms along with changes in plant varieties.

Our food system is rapidly losing the ability to produce food with nutrient levels adequate to maintain the health of families because over the extreme levels of soil degradation we experience in the US.

“The alarming fact is that food – fruits and vegetables and grains – now being raised on millions of acres of land that no longer contains enough needed nutrients, are starving no matter how much we eat from them.” US Senate Document 264 (1936)

This is not a new problem, as the quote from the US Senate Document 264 stated back in 1936! Soil degradation has been talked about and debated for decades and is a problem that is not solely in the United States but is a global issue.

FAO-Infographic-IYS2015-fs2-enDeforestation, overgrazing and over cultivation have resulted in the degradation of soils in every region of the world.  The 68th UN General Assembly considered it worthy enough to turn their attentions to soil importance by declaring 2015 the International Year of Soils.

The fact of the matter is that soils have been transformed by human activity. Whether it’s been through physical degradation by removing natural vegetation, leaving surfaces exposed to the elements or biological degradation where soil has been exhausted of nutrients.

With erosion comes desertification in some areas – I’m sure many who live in the west probably have noticed the increasing number of dust storms. National Geographic recently covered a story, American West Increasingly Dusty comparing dust emissions to be reminiscent of the Dust Bowl Days.  In other areas, we see increased flooding or mudflows.  In the end, all culminating in a loss of soil and biological diversity which directly threatens our overall food security.

Today the nutritional value of harvested food is a major issue.  Over the course of a half a century of the over use of petroleum-based synthetic fertilizers – the commercial farming industry has brought about the destruction of the natural balance of carbon reserves in our soil.

Why is carbon so important in our soil?
The role of carbon is two-fold holding valuable nutrients as well as moisture for plants.  The destruction of carbon has caused our soils to lose the ability to grow healthy food since plants get their nutrients, important minerals from the soil.

Recent studies including one by the University of Texas at Austin’s Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry showed that there have been substantial declines in the amount of protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, vitamin B2 and vitamin C over the last century. The study goes as far as to point the finger at the multitude of agricultural practices used to improve traits like size, growth rate and pest resistance.

“Be it deep or shallow, red or black, sand or clay, the soil is the link between the rock core of the earth and the living things on its surface.  It is the foothold for the plants we grow.  Therein lies the main reason for our interest in soils.”
Roy W. Simonson, USDA Yearbook of Agriculture, 1957

Many other studies conclude similar and startling findings considering that they say an adult woman eating two peaches in 1951 would have to eat 53 in 2002 to get the same nutritional value!  If that doesn’t make the point clear, I don’t know what will.

It’s no wonder that our food has scarcely any nutritional content – in today’s global food system, consumers are guaranteed to find a ripe tomato any day of the year, in most any store across our country.  The average produce travels 1500-2500 miles to reach the grocery store; being harvested well before the fruit is properly ripened.[Pirog et al 2001]  Most fruits and vegetables contain 70% – 90% water and once it is separated from its source of nutrients – the tree, the vine or the plant – they undergo higher rates of respiration, moisture loss, quality and nutrient degradation and potential microbial spoilage.

Chemical preservatives are used to make produce look better to consumers, despite the loss of nutritional value.  While full color may be achieved after harvest, nutritional quality can not.  Tomatoes harvested green have 31% less vitamin C than those allowed to ripen on the vine. (Lee and Kader, 2000)  Plus commercial produce producers selects seed varieties for transportability, shelf life, not nutrient content or flavor.

So what can you do about this global problem?
The answer is as simple as looking in your own backyard or perhaps you get better sun in the front yard.  Grow Your Own Food. It doesn’t take a lot of space and the time you put into it is so rewarding and healthy for your body, mind and soul.

Food gets their nutrients from healthy soil and healthy soil leads to higher nutrients in crops.  A growing body of research supports Sir Albert Howard and J.I. Rodale, the founders of the organic movement who first hypothesized that soils rich in organic matter produce more nutritious food higher in antioxidants, flavonoids, vitamins and minerals.

SoilQuality

Healthy soil is biologically alive and balanced in minerals and carbon content.  Soil organisms play an essential role in the breakdown of organic matter and other complex molecules.  These activities are also linked to processes that lead to the aggregation of soil particles into a friable soil structure that is beneficial for the growth of plants.  The inter-connected activities of soil organisms improve soil stability and underpin nutrient cycling on a global scale.

It’s a fact that healthy soils are responsible for the production of food borne antibiotics, vitamins, phyto-chemicals and amino acids – all of which are crucial the the health of humans.  The right soil will yield the most nutritious and flavorful food possible.  Old techniques which many still prescribe to today: things like roto-tilling and hoeing on soil can be very disruptive to soil organisms.  That’s just one of the reasons we like to use raised beds since they help avoid soil compaction which also effects soils organisms and the soil can be worked more easily without disrupting soil organisms too much.

Photo Credit: Daphne Sampson
Photo Credit: Daphne Sampson

Decomposition of organic matter is the organic content of soil, as decomposing organic material increase carbon content into the soil . This is also one of the many reasons people should compost.  I’d get more into composting but I can go on and on and I will leave that for a soon-to-be-coming blog post.

But composting and compost play a vital role in having healthy nutrient-rich soil year after year.  The soil we use when we install new raised garden beds is a combination of ingredients we mix together. The compost is the food, the nutrient sourse that will feed the growth of the plants coupled with peat which holds water and help keep the soil loose.  We also include some vermiculite, a rock which is mined and heated into little pieces that have nooks and crannies that hold water and nutrients in the soil.  It also helps keep the soil friable and less dense.  Vermiculite also adds a touch of potassium and magnesium but not enough to disrupt pH levels.  When we start with this mixture we have created a weed free environment that is organically balanced for growing food.  The only thing on an annual basis which is replaced each spring is the compost, since it holds the nutrients.  This is why Mark and I went around to all our clients’ gardens this spring and replenished the beds with fresh new compost.

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By growing even a small amount of vegetables you can boost your vitamin and mineral intake significantly. There is no travel time involved and you have controlled the environment in which it has grown. You save water as well, since home gardening is much more efficient than commercial farming systems.

When veggies are grown in your own garden soil enrich with compost, you pick them when you need your veggies minutes before a meal. They are ripe and ready when they are highest in nutritional content. Vine ripened red peppers have 30% more vitamin C than green peppers. (Howard et al. 1994) and vine ripened tomatoes have more vitamin C as well as more antioxidants and lycopene than those harvested prematurely, which is what happens daily in commercial agriculture. (Arias et al 2000).

Soil is a non-renewable resource; its preservation is essential for food security and our sustainable future.

“We are part of the earth and it is part of us …
What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.”

Chief Seattle, 1852

We love helping others learn the joys of edible gardening and discovering for themselves the nutritional benefits from even growing just a little of their fresh produce. If they need our guidance – we are always there to help. We have often said we consider ourselves to be gardening coaches to our clients. We love helping people discover their green thumb.

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