The dirty truth is quick and simple. A dirty, messy, juicy living soil takes care of itself – naturally. A dirty, messy, juicy living soil grows living gardens – naturally.
Simple…and full of a millions of billions of tiny, little creatures. Tiny, little creatures that have the same four basic needs as we do: air, water, shelter, and food.
Too often we hurt instead of help a soil meet these basic needs. We rake up leaves and rip out plants that are soil food. We squeeze out air and overwater. We raze soil houses with tillers and let bare soil bake in the sun.
Soil organic matter – the ultimate dirty little secret – feeds, shelters, and nurtures a living soil.
For starters, though, we’ve distilled the principles of whole soil into 10 quick and dirty rules to guide you. Check out our blog to read more about these little secrets. In the meantime, let this dirty little list simplify what you do, and more importantly, what you don’t do, in the garden or on the farm.
Guiding Whole Soil Principles
The Quick and Dirty
1. Use it if you’ve got it
Save time and work by using what’s close to home, instead of hauling it in from the outside. Shake those leaves from the trees and spread them on the ground. Capture water from the roof and recycle plant roots. Inventory your resources and look to your own garden first to meet its living needs.
2. Manage the whole, not the parts
A whole soil is part of a whole garden is part of a whole community is part of a whole planet. Zoom out and think of your garden as part of this whole picture. How can all the parts of your garden contribute to the health of the whole.
3. Give more than you take
It’s a good rule for life, and for soils too. If you take food from the soil by harvesting garden bounty or pulling weeds, give it back as compost, garden refuse, manure, or cover crops.
4. As above, so below
Most of soil life is belowground. But if you want to know how it’s doing, look aboveground. If plants are healthy and vigorous, then your soil probably is too. Don’t forget to feed your plant roots and soil bugs to grow a beautiful and bountiful garden.
5. Make your life simple by making your garden complex
Soils are simple because they are complex. A healthy garden ecosystem is teeming with lifeforms to numerous to count. To nurture this complexity, be interesting. Grow plants of different sizes, colors, and smells. Be creative and diverse in the amendments you add. Create crazy garden sculptures and shapes to fill the garden ecosystem with microbes, bugs, birds, and bees.
6. Follow the Goldilock’s principle
Too much is not always a good thing. Not enough is death. Don’t overfeed or overwater – starve or parch your living soil. Just like you, your garden bugs like it just right.
7. Disturb less
Soil bugs work hard to build a happy home. A little bit of upheaval can be good. It puts microbes to work and gets them moving. But massive disturbance, like repeated, deep tillage, leaves soil neighborhoods decimated and destitute.
8. Keep the soil covered
A bare soil is a lifeless soil. Soil needs shelter and protection like any other living thing. Living plants, mulch, leaf litter, even cardboard nurture life belowground.
9. Never till a wet soil
If your soil is wet, leave it alone until it dries out. With a few exceptions, the damage you do by walking on, digging in, or pulling machines through wet soil far outweighs the benefits and can damage the living soil for years to come.
10. Go with the flow
Work with, rather than against nature. This is the central theme of permaculture and of growing living soils, too. Watch and observe your whole garden ecosystem – where does water, wind, and sunlight naturally go. Work less by working with these natural flows.