Hand over plant with soil

For the Love of Soil

In honour of World Soil Day, our very own Joey Clifton shares insights from her recent foray into the world of no-dig gardening and contemplates what soil stewardship and a resurgence of local food production mean to a sustainable and climate friendly future.

I believe learning more about something helps us care about and value it more. This is exactly what has happened for me this past year relating to soil. In the hope of inspiring in you a sense of value and awe for this black gold, I’d love to share with you a snippet of my recent journey as a (very) small scale, but highly enthusiastic, food grower and more specifically, my first few steps into the world of no-dig gardening.

For as long as I can remember my motivation for growing food has been the simple and all-encompassing joy of walking into the garden, tiptoeing amongst the stems and stalks, and under the blue skies of July and August harvesting the freshest of fresh produce. As any food grower will tell you the satisfaction of this act is simply unbeatable. I think this alone could keep me trudging through the mountains of weeding!  If only I wasn’t always on the lookout for a slightly better way to do things.

Were it not for a growing  interest in permaculture (working with nature), the arrival of a small child (every second of my time counts), and the possibility of less work (little or no weeding); I would not be delving deeper into the idea of no-dig gardening. My equally garden-nerdy husband and I started getting hooked pretty quickly on Charles Dowding, the go to no-dig man in the UK. He has done a spectacular job of creating a compendium of videos on the topic.

Early in Lockdown 1.0, when the panic buying of food began, these videos became regular evening viewing in our household. Shelves in the supermarket were at times empty, and there was genuine fear of food scarcity. This spurred us on to grow as much food as we possibly could in the moderate plot we have. Meanwhile in our lessons from Mr Dowding the importance of soil was ‘landing’. Simply put healthy soil equals healthy plants. Creating good compost that reaches a high temperature (around 70°C) during decomposition will kill off most weed seeds in the soil. Applying generous amounts (several inches) of fresh compost to your plot each year will also give you healthier soil and more abundant healthier plants.

The more I delved into the glorious world beneath our feet, the more I felt this sense of awe at what had been previously unknown to me.

I discovered that a quarter of all species on earth call soil their home and these ecosystems are structured to be symbiotic between fungal mycelium and plant roots.

Nutrient dense (healthy) soil grows nutrient dense plants, and reductions in soil fertility are linked to deficiencies in the human diet. Furthermore, healthy soil sequesters carbon, so much so that soil management has been identified by the FAO as being key to tackling climate change.

The more I made sense of and understood this fundamental resource, the more I wanted to work with the soil and it’s intricate, intelligent, and deeply evolved ways.

Back to our lovely plot and these new understandings were manifesting as small and subtle changes in our gardening behaviour. Naturally, we invested in more compost bins. We have quadrupled our composting capacity, and we are actively minimising how much we disrupt the soil when sowing and harvesting our plants. I doubt we will ever dig over our plot again. More significantly, though, I feel a deeper connection and sense of care and a gratitude for this incredible resource – I’m excited to be putting together system wide and community-led opportunities to deepen this connection.

 What if so many of the challenges we experience in our society today could be addressed, at least in part, by a return to small scale and community food growing schemes? What if the benefits of such a change were multilayered, and included improved mental and physical health, more connected communities, greater security in our food systems, increased biodiversity, better soil management including flood and drought resistance, reduced food-miles and carbon emissions…? The list goes on.

 In recent times, we as a society have, in large part, become disconnected from both our food and the soil. This detachment or disengagement has contributed to many social and systemic problems. It is time this changed. I’m wondering, what you will do this World Soil Day to start to reconnect with this precious resource? And what part will you choose to play in our climate-friendly food system of the future?

Joey Clifton, Cornwall, UK
5th December, 2020