The dirt is alive
Story and Painting by Stacey Messina
Living soil is beautiful and vibrant, like an abstract painting of colors that flow and mix on a canvas. Below the surface, the living soil is a very busy place, able to support life and maintain its own ecosystem. Living soil is essential for gardens to feed the plants that ultimately feed us. Its layers and textures, when in balance, bring growth and nutrition to our lives.
Visualize earthy brown colors mixed on a palette and then brushed across a canvas. Some strokes are lighter and paler; other strokes are a lush olive color. These first few strokes of the painting begin to form the base layers and represent the radiant diversity of nonliving molecules called loam. Loam is the foundation of living soil. It is composed of three equal parts: sand, silt, and clay. The loam triangle plays a key role in contributing to structure, water retention, and, most importantly, nutrients and minerals.
Down the center of the painting, cocoa color abstract triangles repeat and represent balance and unity. Omitting one side of the loam triangle leads to imbalances. Dry sand or silty soil types are fine and lack structure, which can even repel water and become hydrophobic. Heavy clay soils often resemble bricks when they are dry and dense, or they can be lumpy and sticky when wet. In the right ratio, clay, sand, and silt mixed with some organic matter can provide living soil with incredible nutrient resources and moisture retention.
Water is also vital. Harmonious blue colors flow with broad brushstrokes because without water, there is no life. Cool white, milky brushstrokes are reserved spaces for oxygen, essential to all life, which allows organic matter to begin decomposition and prevent compaction. With water and oxygen, the microorganisms wake up and begin the regenerative push and pull of nutrient cycling deep in the soil.
The textile weave begins to reveal itself as brushstrokes are pushed and pulled across the canvas. The warp and weft are barely noticeable, tiny, and insignificant, but they still play a major role. Their purpose is to hold the paint in place, creating lasting bonds. This is exactly what millions of microorganisms are doing. Bacteria decompose organic matter, creating delicate glues and smaller bonds between soil particles. The fungi also help decompose organic matter and create longer bonds and larger soil structures. Eventually, the underground soil food web becomes a complex food chain. Bacteria and fungi are consumed by larger organisms like protozoa and nematodes, becoming something called humus. Humus is dark, rich decomposed organic matter loaded with plant-soluble nutrients and minerals. Burgundy lines wiggle through the layers of the painting. At last, larger-bodied organisms like red earthworms eat everything in their path including bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and decomposing material. Their frass, or poop, is black gold. This is when the magic begins.
Swoops of soft pink illuminate the painting with feelings of joy, love, and support. The living soil has worked hard and offers many gifts to the plant. The plant accepts a steady stream of nutrients and minerals now accessible in a plant-soluble form through its roots. Only taking what it needs, the plant grows and makes a promise to return the favor. While the plant gains energy from photosynthesis, it sends a flowing substance down into the rhizosphere, or root zone, offering sugary foods and protection from pathogens returning the gesture. The painting lights up using linear shades of yellow, the color of friendship. This amazing cycle continues for infinity as long as all the colorful components are present.
Living soil is truly incredible.
Check out microbiologist Dr. Elaine Ingham’s website for more insights on living soil.
Read Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.
Follow local regenerative grower Ron McCord on Instagram.