Soil: the new frontier

Do any of you have dirt under your fingernails? Good. You and all gardeners have direct experience with soil. Those of you who don’t get your hands in the dirt probably will, because soil and soil building is the next frontier. Why do I say that?

Because until recently our understanding of soil and our approach to soil fertility was steeped in ignorance and misunderstanding. We’ve been in the Dark Ages.

Does anybody know the meaning of a new paradigm? It does not mean coming up with a new idea; it means coming up with a new perspective, a new ground from which to begin our thinking. We are entering a new paradigm in relation to the earth.

As recently as the last 10-15 years, there has been a shift in world consciousness to recognize that the soil is not just masses of minerals, but a living ecosystem. A teaspoon of soil can have 10,000-100,000 kinds of beings. The real shift has been from the view that the inert soil needs petroleum-derived fertilizers to be productive; to a view that a vibrant soil life fed on organic matter produces healthy plants that lead to healthy humans. The old paradigm obviously was a profitable prejudice.

There has been an explosion of interest in microbiology and mycology, the study of fungi. Hundreds of articles are appearing in publications like the American Rose Society and Tree Care Industry that used to promote chemicals as the best approach to soil fertility. Dozens of books on soils are being published. (show some) The Smithsonian just presented a monumental exhibit entitled: “Dig It: The Secrets of Soil”.

So what I am saying is that we have just seen the tip of the Soil Profile, so I can only tell you a fraction of what you want and need to know.

Beyond the basic recognition of soil as teaming with life: fungi, bacteria, protozoa, earthworms, pill bugs etc, there are other levels of soil: electrical, biodynamic, moon and planets, intelligence of soil, mycelium web, survival of whole

THE PROBLEM: PEAK SOIL we’re losing ground-the industrial food “machine” is destroying the capacity of soil to support life on earth.

Dead soil,  compaction,  erosion,  chemical contamination,  loss of humus,  lower nutritional value-poor health,   expensive artificial inputs,  not sustainable- takes more and more money, inputs

  1. War technology- pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chem. fertilizers
  2. Pesticides don’t know when to stop killing
  3. Chem.fertilizers- small % gets to plants, contamination, dead zone
  4. Problems with too much nitrogen and phosphorus
  5. Running out of cheap oil, available phosphorus
  6. Industrial ag ia more dependent on intensive irrigation-water is increasingly in short supply


  1. Nature is Bottom up, Partnership, Symbiosis: even the lion only eats what it needs. Greed is top down, small-minded, dominating, controlling resources, like Big Banks holding onto money to protect themselves
  2. Recognition of the intelligence, and generally beneficial qualities of nature and the realization that supporting soil life will add up through the food chain-the cycle of nutrients
  3. Healthy soil leads to healthy plants lead to healthy animals lead to healthy humans
  4. We humans are very vulnerable and dependent on plants. Plants can photo-synthesize; they can make food out of sunlight, minerals and water; people cannot do this.
  5. All life on earth is dependent on our planet earth maintaining certain conditions, like a beneficial temperature. We must reduce burning of carbon that produces carbon dioxide. Soils that are high in organic matter can sequester (store) twice as much carbon as the vegetation and atmosphere above it.


  1. feed the soil with our plant wastes, with organic matter
  2. cultivate beneficial bacteria and fungi to compost our plant wastes and build healthy soils.
  3. Rapidly multiply populations of beneficial bacteria, fungi etc in an oxygenated compost tea as a locally produced soil booster/fertilizer
  4. Support populations of worms; farm worms as well as plants
  5. Grow green manure crops where possible
  6. Till and rototill in the beginning to get organic matter into the soil, then topdress and sheet mulch, not disturbing the soil structure
  7. Mulch for fertility, not just to hold moisture. Feed and cool microbes in the top 2”-10”
  8. Apply a regenerative system, not an exploitive system. Nature will reward your generosity with bounty.
  9. Animal manures from healthy animals fed on what is good for them.
  10. kelp, alfalfa, cottonseed meal, weeds, bio-accumulaters, throw away nothing organic: it is all valuable food for our team of microbes

“By continuously adding mulch (and extra worms) we wnsure that the worms, mycelia and pillbugs have something to break down and turn into rich topsoil, full of humus.”   Jerome Osentowski

Central RM Permaculture Institute

“The interconnectedness of life is an obvious truth that we ignore at our peril.”    Paul Stamets


  1. garden organically a) soils high in organic matter sequester twice as much carbon as the vegetation and atmosphere above it

b) using organic fertilizers instead of petroleum-based fertilizers retains more carbon in the soils and avoids the production of nitrous oxide that is 300 times more potent as a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide

  • Buy products that are grown or produced locally
    • eat local-food that is shipped long distances adds greatly to the production of carbon dioxide; grow your own- most carbon neutral
    • support businesses that sell locally produced products
  • eat less meat or eat meat produced organically without chemical fertilizers and pesticides and without the manure lagoons that produce lots of methane that is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

“Soil and vegetation are our biggest carbon sinks. Industrial agriculture destroys both.” V.Shiva

“Every step in building a living agriculture sustained by a living soil is a step toward both mitigating and  adapting to climate change.” Vandana Shiva