When the Soil Conservation Council of Canada challenged everybody to ‘soil your undies’, the move sparked a lot of interest as farmers and gardeners buried clean underwear in the soil and then dug them up 2 months later to assess soil health. Those whose soils were healthy dug up little else besides elastic waistbands, while those with unhealthy soils dug up dirty but intact underwear. You could say that’s the soil health story in briefs.
The soil is not a lifeless mixture of sand, silt and clay. It is a living system buzzing with billions of bacteria, fungi, and other micro and macro organisms that are critical to the soil’s functions of providing and recycling nutrients for plant growth, detoxifying pollutants, retaining water for use during drier periods, and serving as a firm structure for agricultural activities. Soil health has been concisely defined as the continued capacity of the soil to function as a vital living system that sustains plants, animals and humans. Two elements in this definition are key. First, ”the continued capacity of” reflects the soil’s resilience and ability to regenerate and function well for future generations. Second, recognition of soil “as a vital living system” highlights the importance of soil biota.
The role of soil biota in the soil system was largely neglected in the past because it was poorly understood and difficult to measure. Today, however, with advanced analytical techniques, soil biota can be better studied, and its importance in the sustenance of life is gradually taking center stage.
So, how can we improve soil health? Research has shown that reducing the level of soil disturbance, diversifying the species of plants grown, keeping the soil covered all the time, keeping living plants in the soil as often as possible, and adding organic or biological soil amendments all have beneficial effects on soil health.
Recent studies warning that we are losing topsoil a lot faster than it can be replenished through natural processes should indeed make us pay attention and stop treating soil like dirt. And by the way, if you want to ‘soil your undies’ this year, now is a great time to start. You can find the protocol for the experiment here: http://www.soilcc.ca/soilyourundies/2017/Soil-Your-Undies-Protocol.pdf
-Ikenna Mbakwe, PhD, PAg
Head of Research