The holidays are a sacred time to spend with family and friends and manifest peace on Earth, good will toward men. I wish you all peace and meaningful celebrations. May you extend grace to yourselves and those you encounter this holiday season.
Horticulture, native plants, and soil health, along with their relationships to the ecosystem, environment, and human health, are passions I enjoy sharing. As it happens, those passions line up with the mission of Clemson Cooperative Extension Service to improve the economy, environment, and well-being of South Carolinians.
Soil is often overlooked concerning environmental health, which is understandable. After all, it is impossible to see what is happening below the soil surface.
Plants absorb light energy from the sun, water from the soil, and carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and convert them into chemical energy in the form of carbohydrates. The soil organisms consume carbohydrates excreted by plant roots and from organic matter plants shed as leaves, fruits, and stems. As the soil organisms feed on the organic matter, they convert it into nutrients that plants utilize for healthy growth. Since carbon stays in the system, it is not released back into the atmosphere, a process called carbon sequestration.
One teaspoon (1 gram) of healthy soil contains up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Add to these the plant roots, insects, earthworms, and mammals living there. These living organisms are made from and utilize carbon and are critical components of the soil ecosystem.
This ecosystem’s delicate biological, geological, chemical, and physical balance operates flawlessly when undisturbed. However, when soil is disturbed, it leads to degradation or breaking down of the system. Degraded soils release carbon back into the atmosphere as CO2. The effect of the CO2 release is increasing greenhouse gases that trap heat in the atmosphere and warms the planet. Fortunately, regenerating soil to reverse the damage is relatively cheap and easy.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), lists four principles for developing and maintaining healthy soil. These include:
- Maintaining Living Roots in the Soil
- Minimizing Disturbance
- Covering the Soil
- Maximizing Plant and Animal Biodiversity
Visit their Soil Health website for more information and resources.
The four soil health principles are scalable. Sites from a quarter-acre suburban property to a dozen-acre office or hospital complex to thousands of acres of farm crops can implement them: the smaller the site, the easier the changes.
For soil health inspiration, watch the documentary Kiss the Ground on Netflix. One warning about the film, there are controversial representations of chemicals and conventional agriculture practices that take away from the overall documentary. But the explanation of soil health principles and their science is excellent.
Visit Soil Building for Watershed Health, Why Does Soil Health Matter? Starting with Soil Organisms and The Role of Organic Matter in Healthy Soils for more soil health information from the Clemson HGIC.