By Cat Buxton
Cat Buxton holds forth on the essentials of composting.
Soil is the glue that holds our landscape and our communities together. Literally. Beneath our feet, fungi and essential microbes—like bacteria, protozoa and nematodes—partner with plants to transform the sun’s energy and accomplish ‘unseen’ essential work: cycling carbon dioxide, exchanging nutrients and creating vast underground cathedrals—the very infrastructure that civilizations are built upon.
Held together by the goo’s, glues, snots and slimes created by the soil’s outrageously abundant and diverse flora and fauna, the soil supports all life on land. And the small spaces between the walls and tunnels of these microscopic cathedrals hold vital water, just like a sponge.
The soil that covers our home planet also stores more carbon than the total of carbon found in both our atmosphere and in the plants that feed upon the soil. This soil carbon sink is a critical component of adapting to and mitigating the impacts of our changing climate, such as flooding and drought.
In my studies I focus on soil and ecosystem health, community resilience and helping to build what I call the social mycelium: living in connection to each other and the world around us. I call myself a busy cross-pollinator, advocating for system change and a paradigm shift by connecting and building up one relationship at a time.
Learning about the soil mycelium—the vast, far-reaching microscopic fungal networks that connect plant communities in a highly sophisticated communication system or worldwide web—changed my foundation. Every living thing is covered with microbes! Above and below. Good ones, bad ones, indifferent ones. We have no idea who most of these largely unseen creatures are, never mind what they do in the world. And they all do something! They are the drivers of all life: the biological workers like microbes—partnering with bees and bugs to selflessly work in collaboration for the greater good of all.
Diversity is a keystone to the correction of imbalances in our soils, ecosystems, on our farms, in our guts and in our hearts—intricate, dynamic, extremely intelligent, fragile, collaborative, interdependent layers upon layers of beautiful chaotic diversity! Disturbances harm these fragile beings. Tillage, fertilizers, pesticides, overuse of antibacterial products, volcanoes, flooding, hurricanes, tornados, fires…all types of disturbance. Thankfully, microbes are super-resilient and regenerate quickly when the conditions allow. In natural systems, disturbance leads to rejuvenation, correction and adaptation.
Humans can create the conditions for massive microbial diversity in compost piles. Layered into our landscapes at the feet of a symphony of diverse plants, healthy compost can jump-start the mysterious and highly intelligent biological processes of plant and microbe interactions that generate soil.
To build soil, one needs ingredients. Luckily, those ingredients are all around us! Food scraps, coffee grounds, liquid foodstuff, food processing waste, paper, leaves, sawdust, wood chips, lawn clippings, hay, straw, plant debris, garden waste, everyone’s manure… In nature, nothing is wasted. We can learn from this! By approaching one problem, like waste management, through the lens of soil health, we can also address problems of soil loss and storm water management. Composting food waste, yard waste and manure offer possibilities for jumpstarting biological activity in our yards, fields and forests.
Compost itself is not soil because it lacks the mineral elements of broken down rocks: sand, silt and clay. The microbes in our compost and soils develop partnerships with the plants that we grow. Plants drink sunshine and cycle liquid energy through their roots to feed microbes in exchange for the minerals they obtain from the soil. As gardeners we want to cause as little disturbance as possible to the root systems of plants, including those we might consider weeds. A variety of techniques can help us enhance wild diversity while nurturing the crops that we want, such as minimal tilling, keeping soil covered with living plants and mulches, companion planting and integrating cover crops.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Soil Health Principles offer guidance toward partnering with the biological workforce to create conditions for thriving ecosystems. The principles are very simple in concept. They’re old knowledge repurposed, backed by science. Interpreted together, in the context of time and place, the principles are a helpful framework to understand how whole living systems function no matter where you are on Earth. We often get stuck on the parts. We over-specialize. We become reductionist. We forget to pan out to the birds-eye view. Focusing on “wholes” rather than “parts” helps us listen to and work with the land to benefit the ecosystem while meeting our landscape goals.
We have so much work to do to create opportunities for a thriving livelihood for future generations of bugs and plants, birds and fish, bacteria and fungi, frogs, animals and humans. The connections between compost, soil, water, food and climate offer hope for humanity and practical solutions to heal our ecosystems.
WHAT YOU CAN DO:
- Manage your garden to increase the carbon stored in the soil: 1) Use organic versus synthetic fertilizers, and 2) Disturb the soil as little as possible by mulching heavily and employing no-till (no-dig) gardening.
- Learn more about the author’s work at Grow More, Waste Less: growmorewasteless.com
- Read Didi Pershouse’s Soil Health Principles: https://www.didipershouse.com/soil-health-principles.html