In the first of a series of articles on growing your own food, Valerie Payn starts at the root of the matter – how human health depends on fertile soil.
“Healthy societies depend on healthy soil, healthy soil depends on healthy biology, and healthy biology depends on what goes into the soil,” said Sir Albert Howard, one of the 18C founders of the organic movement who became famous for his experiments with compost. “Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals, and finally to artificial men and women.”
These days health and medical professionals often urge us to take daily multi-vitamins and food supplements, because many of us don’t get enough of these from the food we eat. Even if we do eat plenty of fruit and vegetables, long storage times, artificial ripening methods, and modern mass food cultivation techniques that rely on chemical fertilizers, often mean our food is not as nutritious as it should be. Food that has been mass produced may also contain pesticides and other chemical residues that can affect human health, even at low levels. (Rodale pg 23 quoting Evanthia Diamanti-Kandarakis et al. 2009).
One way to overcome these problems is to grow one’s own organic food.
Besides health benefits, growing one’s own organic food brings many other rewards.
The benefits of food growing
- By growing our own food we can extend the flavour, colour, and aromas available to our food palette by cultivating unusual and rare food plants not often found in supermarkets.
- Many city children (and some adults too) are ignorant about where their food comes from, so growing one’s own food can be educational, and help people get in touch with Nature and the idea that our lives literally depend on nurturing Earth. Children love watching that little seed turn into a plant that they can actually eat. Peas, carrots, sweet-corn, lettuce, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes and beans are all easy to grow foods that delight children.
- Organic food gardening can save on the budget, and is a wonderful means of recycling organic household waste, instead of dumping this at the local landfill where it contributes to pollution.
- Spent flowers, grass cuttings, clippings and prunings, vegetable peelings, old newspapers and cardboard, old cotton clothing, in fact anything that was once living and can decompose, can be recycled though composting, and used to feed your garden soil.
- Organic food gardening can also play a conservation role. Organically treated soils contain more mycorrhizae (fungi), soil microbes, earthworms and soil life in general than chemically treated soils. Many beneficial creatures such as birds, insects and small animals feed on soil dwelling creatures, so more life in the soil can lead to more life above the soil.
Biology: driver of plant nutrition and health
In healthy living soil, biology is the main driver of plant nutrition and health, rather than added chemical fertilizers. Healthy soil may contain a mind-boggling trillion (a million, million) or more microbes per square meter, or between 100 million to 1 billion bacteria per teaspoon of soil! These minute soil dwelling creatures come in a vast array of astonishing forms and perform as many functions.
Like any healthy eco-system, healthy living soil has its fair share of predators and prey, carnivores, herbivores, omnivores, parasites and sanitizing scavengers. Many of these life forms are invisible to the naked human eye. They include bacteria, fungi, algae, actinomycetes, mites and protozoa.
Other more visible forms of soil life include soil dwelling insects, worms and nematodes of various sorts, and a range of burrowing, digging, scratching, urinating, defecating animals and birds. And not to forget plants, which also play an active role in the life of the soil. ALL this life is necessary in healthy soil. It is what makes soil naturally healthy and fertile.
Helping plants absorb balanced levels of micro-nutrients
This life in the soil, or soil biology, plays a multitude of valuable roles in creating fertile soil, and assisting plants take up balanced and healthy levels of minerals and other micro-nutrients that promote healthy plant growth.
Soil life performs many functions, like:
- changing the way water and air circulate in the soil,
- increasing soil stability,
- freeing up nutrients from gases, rock minerals and organic matter,
- building humus,
- influencing how well plants absorb nutrients and what sort of nutrients plant roots absorb,
- producing antibiotics that protect plants against diseases and certain pests, and
- can even decontaminate soils of certain dangerous toxins.
Dead soil cannot support healthy life
Without soil dwelling life, soil is sterile and dead. Dead soil cannot support healthy life, or grow healthy food.
All organic, biologically based methods of building soil fertility aim to increase soil humus levels, and nurture soil biology that helps to feed and protect plants. Composting, mulching, vermi-composting (using earthworm castes), using compost teas or EM (Effective Micro-organisms), green manures and companion planting are all ways we can use to boost life in the soil, the health of our food plants, and ultimately our own human health.
By Valerie Payn
Valerie is the author of the e-book An Ecological Gardeners Handbook – how to create a garden with a healthy eco-system and garden sustainably. She also blogs regularly about sustainable landscape design and gardening.