It’s all about the dirt…

It’s odd that the following article appeared in today’s Globe & Mail :

Researchers have “analyzed the distribution of soil in the United States and came up with some astounding statistics about the perilous status of the seemingly ubiquitous earths of North America.”

Ok, aside from the obvious question as to how scientists can do research in one country and extrapolate the results to include an entire continent, the timing was interesting. In the past week I’ve been thinking a lot (for no particular reason) about soil, and my belief that 80% of our efforts as gardeners should be focused on improving and preserving the dirt, not the flowers. I’m serious! Most of us put all of our energy into the esthetics and productivity of the things we plant, as though they exist in isolation from the ground they stand on. It’s easy to pour fertilizer on our gardens, to drench them with fungicides and pesticides, to plant modern hybrids and genetically-modified monsters that are resistant to this blight or that bug. But I can’t escape the sinking feeling that the soil itself is a living thing, and we’re killing it. All the chemicals we pour into the ground destroys the micro-organisms and mycorrhizae that are part of the ecology of soil. Without them, the symbiotic relationships that enable plants to recycle and take up nutrients so that they can build up resistance to disease and predators are lost. What’s more, all of our work to keep gardens and lawns tidy starves the soil and its creatures of the very things that feed and sustain them. It’s a vicious circle.

Recently a relative built a new home, and he showed me around the property, looking for advice on landscaping. The top layer of friable soil had been scraped bare by bulldozers, and only the lower layers of infertile clay and sub-soil lay exposed. He had already started plunking trees and plants in the ground here and there, commenting on how costly they were. I hesitated to tell him that he might as well have buried his money in the ground, for all the good it would do. What he really needed was an investment in several truckloads of topsoil. I did suggest that he mix lots and lots of compost in the hole when he planted, and strongly recommended that he and his wife start composting as much as they possibly can. He looked at me like I had two heads — first, it costs money to buy bags of compost (bags?!). Second, compost bins attract skunks. Didn’t I have any better advice than that?

I considered trying to explain myself to a unreceptive audience, and decided it was futile. These were people who thought of gardening as punishment, not pleasure, and they would not take kindly to any suggestion that there was far more to it than they already thought was unmanageable.

Yeah, go ahead and plant another tree (sigh). If in their reluctance to yardwork they stay out of nature’s way, the soil around the house might regenerate on its own in oh, 10 or 20 years.

“When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”

John Muir