Gardening: Broken Links

By Betty Harris

Our collective understanding of how things connect is still being developed, as some have observed, by traveling the world and living with and around various indigenous peoples and wild animals that inhabit their space. Much of what is being learned is being tried all over the globe and an ever expanding trove of literature is gradually spreading that knowledge. A recent read of a book by Kristen Ohlson titled the soil will save us (yes, lower case letters) shows that we’ve lost a lot of connections or links in human knowledge, or that we never understood a lot of things from the beginning.

Did you ever think about how plants, soil and planet life connect? Who among us knew that when we disturb the soil, we release carbon that could be used by plants rather than be added to the atmosphere? Who among us had any thought about the fact that “modern” agricultural or gardening practices actually harm the soil and plant and animal life?

Well, more recent research shows that plowing the soil releases carbon (the sugars of life that plants make from sunlight) killing microbes, nematodes, worms, and other soil animals which thus requires that we spend more money on soil amendments, fertilizers, etc. It goes back to our lack of understanding of cause and effect and our lack of attention to what happens around us. Plowing destroys some extremely important links and costs us a great deal of money while requiring us to do more work. Who knew that less is more?

Plowing the soil has destroyed the connections between the soil animals and the plants, which then impacted birds, insects and masses of other life on the planet. Plowing used to release masses of animal life which flocks of birds would eat as they followed the plow. These days there are no birds following the plow, not because of a lack of birds but because of a lack of animal life in the soil. I’m old enough to remember those birds following my dad’s plow as the mules pulled it. By the time I went to college the mules had been replaced by large tractors which were small in comparison to what is being used to kill the soil in agribusiness these days. By the time I was 25, the birds had stopped following the plows as there was nothing to eat.

Now scientists and farmers are working together to understand what links have been broken and how to repair them. Most scientific work is done through college research grants provided by large corporations to “prove” that their products are the “solution” to everything the world needs. Most of these grants are for 3 yr studies. Understanding the connections between the soil and what humans do to it often requires more like 10 yrs of study so building this knowledge seldom gets done through universities but rather by observant farmers and ranchers who are going back to ground. But some scientists are increasingly trying to learn more and work on more research, even if there are no grants to fund it.

It seems that we’ve unknowing broken some important links between the fungi, microbes, nematodes and other soil animals and the soil itself. Observation teaches us that those links are vital to the production of food and the atmosphere itself. As humans have tilled the land, they have released massive amounts of carbon and broken the links mentioned above. By this process we’ve reduced the natural fertility of the soil which then requires application of chemical fertilizers that pollute and poison the earth and its water and air.

To reconnect the links between soil, plants, food, humans and other wild life, we need to stop plowing the land. It is far less expensive to stop rototilling gardens and let the worms and other soil life live. By adding compost directly on top of the soil, we can avoid releasing more carbon. We also end up storing more carbon as plant life improves and uses more carbon from the air. As we stop disturbing the soil, we allow mycorrhizae to thrive. This feeds plants which exchange the minerals and nutrients that the mycorrhizae offer in exchange for carbon sugars that plants make from air, water and sunlight. The mutual aid society that fungi and plants have had from the beginning reaps massive benefits for the planet. Plants convert more sunlight to sugar than they need themselves and exchange this with microbes, fungi, mycorrhizae and soil animals. These critters’ life cycle aids the plants as well.

How do you save money and do all this without chemicals and without a great deal of work? Cover all soil with plants, with compost, with mulch (rocks are NOT mulch) which reduces heat where you live, stores water in the soil, stores carbon in the soil and makes the space you live on cooler. Bare dirt holds little water and next to no carbon; it heats up and washes or blows away. It has been estimated that nature needs 1000 years to create 1 inch of soil but you can generate soil significantly faster with proper actions.

Save all clean organic matter including trimmings from bushes, trees, etc. You can leave this on the flower beds or raised beds, bury it in trenches, or make hugelkulturs. That 1000 years that nature requires to make that inch of soil can be accelerated by humans by collecting and composting massive amount of organic matter from plant growth each year. We can save the leaves from our trees in the fall and mulch them on top of our flower beds or garden boxes. We can collect the neighbors’ leaves before they give them to the trash man. Piling them up on our garden areas keeps moisture in the soil and keeps the soil from freezing, which then allows the worms to eat leaves all winter. This process is sort of like composting without the work and extra equipment of compost bins, etc.

By seldom disturbing the soil (as we do with plowing and tilling), the mycorrhizae in the soil continues to feed the plants and exchange nutrients for carbon sugars and builds soil faster than you can imagine. If we seldom break this chain of events we build a stronger chain of life that makes the planet a more wonderful place to live for all life. For we humans, it is also cheaper and less polluting and less time consuming, leaving us with a cooler spot on the block and more time to sit under a tree and enjoy nature.

Don’t have a tree? Plant one on your birthday and Earth Day each year. Find affordable trees available from the City for Earth Day here: or in the current Littleton Report. Buy a fruit tree from O’Tooles and plant it even if you’ll never get to personally eat the fruit. Plant trees, plant fruiting bushes, plant a garden, plant native species of flowers because they have deeper root systems which requires less water. Plant life, reconnect those broken links for you, your children, your grandchildren, your neighborhood, your planet.

We have a choice to make now and we must make it soon. We can choose to survive on a planet that is slowly dying or we can choose to live and help the planet survive. It is time to work at repairing those broken links.


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