When we walk outside and look down at the ground, we often do not think anything of the soil we stand on. We see it just as a brown, red, or gray home to grass and plants. However, soil is much more than that. During November’s Biomimicry Fireside Chat, special guest Don Smith, a Healthy Soil Advocate from Kiss the Ground, emphasized that “the health of our soil creates our entire environment… everything goes back to the soil.” There is hope and inspiration to be had in working to understand the ecosystem living beneath our feet. And through this process of opening our minds to the symbiotic relationships that allow Earth to function so successfully, we will discover how to live in a way that is harmonious with our environment, going beyond sustainable and into regenerative: a positive offering that gives more than it takes.
Soils are the “complex, dynamic, biogeochemical systems that are vital to the life cycles of terrestrial vegetation and soil-inhabiting organisms — and by extension to the human race.” Soil is composed of minerals, water, gas, organisms, and other organic matter in various states of decomposition. The three types of minerals that make up soil are clay, silt, and sand. The percentage of each of these minerals in the soil determines soil texture.
Soil health can be defined as “the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans.” A healthy soil has a functioning relationship with carbon, proper nutrients, good drainage, a high level of resilience, substantial populations of beneficial organisms, sufficient depth, resistance to weeds, and good tilth. In contrast, unhealthy soil is often lacking nutrients or essential organism populations, hindering its ability to function.
Soils are luckily not fixed in a healthy or unhealthy state. A healthy soil can become unhealthy due to a change in climate or a harsh storm. For example, in a dry climate, soil may suffer due to lack of organic matter from plants. And, as a result of lack of water in a dry climate, soil may become extremely solid and unconducive to drainage. By understanding the way soil interacts with its changing environment, we can learn to help soil recover into a healthy state after changes or disturbances.
A key component of healthy soil is its ability to support the microorganisms which inhabit it. When in a healthy state, soil is able to support these organisms and plants by performing nutrient cycling. Although soil-inhabiting plants are able to perform photosynthesis, they cannot survive only on the carbohydrates they produce. As a result, they also rely on the soil’s nutrient supply. This is where nutrient cycling comes into play. During nutrient cycling, soil’s nutrients are released from the decomposition of organic matter in the soil (aided by soil-inhabiting decomposers, such as fungi). Then, when the plants and organisms which live in the soil die, they begin to decompose and become organic matter, releasing nutrients and feeding another nutrient cycle. In this way, soil is able to maintain its health and feed its inhabitants.
Carbon, a nutrient essential to life, is a crucial component of nutrient cycling, and thus a crucial component of healthy soil. Carbon is stored in six main reservoirs: the soil, fossils, the ocean, the atmosphere, plants, and rocks. Carbon flows between these reservoirs during the carbon cycle, a cycle which is the “backbone of life on Earth”. For this reason, carbon is not only essential to a healthy soil, but healthy soils are essential to supporting all life on Earth through carbon cycling.
In addition to providing plants with nutrients and supporting the carbon cycle, a healthy soil also provides root anchorage, water, and temperature modification for plants. Root anchorage allows plants to find stability in the soil. Water is crucial for plant photosynthesis, and temperature modification aids in overcoming changes in climate. By keeping the plants healthy, the soil fosters oxygen production from these plants, which is essential to the life of many organisms that live in the soil.
The health of soil and the nature living within it is crucial to our health as humans. It affects our climate, the way our food is produced, and so much more. If we connect to the land and care for our soils, our health and the health of the soil will be greatly increased.
Our soils need our help. Due to constant and consistent losses of topsoil, overgrazing, overcultivation, and more, our soils have become degraded. According to Don, “We’ve taken a really highly functional system and degraded it to where it’s not really sustaining.” To overcome this, we must think about the full ecosystem approach to land management. And this comes in the form of regeneration.
“Regeneration is what we need to focus on,” says Don. To regenerate the health of the soil, we have to rebuild its damaged microbiome, because “if the soil doesn’t have a functioning microbiome, the plants that grow in it aren’t going to survive.” To help regenerate and rehabilitate the microbiome of the soil, we can focus on getting “the organic matter content up.”
One of the best ways to improve soil organic matter, according to Don, is to improve photosynthesis — both rate and capacity. “You can actually grow a healthy corn crop and improve soil organic matter at the same time!” says Don. “Most people don’t think you can actually improve soil while growing a crop.”
A healthy plant has bigger and thicker leaves, and these leaves will photosynthesize more than smaller unhealthy leaves, which means they will pump more carbon-based exudates into the soil to feed more microbes. “This is what we want to be doing everywhere,” adds Don. “Compost is a great tool, but supporting plant health to maximize photosynthesis is the true goal, because you can pump in way more carbon for less money and effort.” Composting is indeed a simple and quite effective way to help. But, there is not only one solution.
Lex Amore from the Biomimicry Institute encourages us to “get your hands in the soil and… see what we can learn together from nature’s wisdom.” So, next time you walk outside on a crisp fall day, and hear your boots crunch on amber leaves, think one layer deeper: what’s happening beneath what I can see? What intricacies may I learn here in this complex and intricately connected ecosystem? What is nature doing here that can help us adapt?
Faye Berry is a rising senior at Lower Merion High School in Pennsylvania. She has enjoyed nature from a young age and continues to explore the world around her.