The Soil Food Web

I highly recommend this interveiw with Larry Santoyo called 'The Future is Abundant' on Sustainable World Radio.  It is fun, poignant and interesting look at permaculture through the lens of the very charismatic permaculture elder, Larry Santoyo.  Santoyo says that permaculture is 'A design discipline, a decision making protocol to solve problems and think about solutions'.  He also makes the point that we use permaculture in what we do... we don't do permaculture.  Permaculture is not just something relegated to homesteads.  Permaculture can be applied to all different situations, from a doctor's office, to economic development to plumbing.  You use permaculture in what you do.

Groundswell, Invermere, BC

He gives the example of the garden at about ten minutes into the podcast.  Ask yourself, what is the highest generalization that you are trying to achieve? You might be tempted to say, well I'm trying to produce vegetables by gardening.  However, what you are really doing is managing soil.  By having a good grasp of the soil food web, soil texture, temperature, pH etc, you have the by-product of delicious vegetables.  We are creating amazing by-products in our resilient, holistic garden system instead of buying products.

So instead of asking how can I grow more vegetables, ask yourself, how can I take care of my soil?  And what do  I really know about soil?

Dr. Elaine Ingham with some of the Groundswell and Verge Team

Last September I had the honour to participate in a Soil Convention at Groundswell in Invermere, organized by Groundswell and Verge Permaculture. The keynote speaker of the event was Dr. Elaine Ingham. She has been contributing to the discovery and understanding of the living components of soil for the past 40 years. She is as passionate and brilliant as I hoped she would be.   It was wonderful to hear about different case studies of soil repair by nurturing and creating the conditions for the soil food web to flourish.

Now what is this mysterious soil food web?

The soil food web is an ecosystem of micro and macro organisms interacting to grow, reproduce, die, cycle nutrients, build soil just like you might imagine an ecosystem interacting with more visible components like owls, mice, elk, grass and wolves.

Soil food webs are affected by their food sources and by soil management (tillage, mulching, crop rotation, types of plants growing).  The complexity, the ratio of fungi to bacteria, and the number of organisms reflect the health of the soil food web and can be monitored.  The soil food web is important in maintaining soil productivity, filtering water, storing and cycling nutrients, and storing carbon. Plants take an active role in cultivating the micro-organisms in the soil around their roots zones.  As much as 50% of the sugars produced by photosynthesis are exuded through plant root zones to cultivate different types of bacteria and fungi to decompose organic material and soil minerals for the plants.  So really, who is farming who?  We thought we were the farmers, but then you look at the plant root zone and find that the plants are growing thousands of different types of bacteria and fungi to get all it's nutrient needs. 

If you think about it, that's really what you want.  Nature will do it best.  These interactions and ecosystems have evolved and flourished to create the huge diversity of life on this planet. You want the plants to be able to grow their own soil food web. There is no way that you can be micro-managing every single nutrient that your plants need every second of every day. Inspired by Masanobu Fukuoka, I often ask myself 'What can I not do?'.  In other words, 'What can I let nature do?'.  So instead of mico-managing every aspect of the plants in your garden, your job is to feed the soil food web, and to not disturb it too much.

For more info take a look at this video of Elaine or go to the National Resources Conservation Service Soils page or Dr. Ingham's website.

So what?  How do I support the soil food web? Well as a gardener, we can use this information to better steward the soil.  There are a few tips you can keep in mind while you are out in your garden.
  • Disturb the soil as little as possible (minimize tillage, tillage breaks up the soil food web)
  • Grow as many different types of plants  (so that you will have diversity of soil organisms)
  • Keep living roots growing throughout the year (because most microbial activity happens around the root zone)
  • Keep the soil covered as much as possible (conserves moisture, reduces temperature, protects from erosion, provides habitat, suppresses weed growth)
Also take a look at this video from Gabe Brown about building soil at a large scale.

There were lots of other super wonderful presenters such as Mike Dorion of Living Soil Solutions, Javan Bernakavitch of Permaculture BC, Rob Avis of Verge and Adaptive Habitat, Adrian Buckley of Regenerate Design and Luke Kimmel of Leaf Ninjas and I had a great time teaching and listening in on the wonderful presentations from these talented folks.


“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new”
- Socrates


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