Soil building is perhaps the most important aspect of regenerative land development. Soils rich in nutrients, organic matter, and beneficial microorganisms support healthy plant growth, which in turn, support different thriving ecosystems. These healthy soil components (mineral particles, organic materials, air/gas, water and living organisms) -- all interact slowly and consistently over time to create healthy soils that hold moisture and produce large, healthy crop yields.
There are really only two options for soil building: 1) importing your soil or 2) improving the soil you already have. The latter is where we use our knowledge of soil biology to "regenerate" the soil, or bring it back to life.
In regenerative (or permaculture) practices, we try to replicate nature's biological richness in whatever biome (grassland, forest, desert, rainforest, etc.) we are attempting to create. For instance, the weight of fungi in forest soil is much greater than that of the bacteria dominated soil beneath annual weeds on bare ground. Grasslands tend to have an equal distribution of both. This ecological knowledge guides our rehabilitation goals and efforts, along with the following practices:
1) Encouraging biological tillage
The undisturbed subsoil (or soil right beneath the topsoil) lets the earthworms dig their tunnels and provides aeration and drainage while their excretions bind together to make soil crumbs. They are essential for healthy soil structure. If you don’t compromise earthworms, microbes, and other soil organisms through soil disturbance, worms can perform much of the tillage needed to create and maintain loose, fertile soils. Mechanical tillage destroys these vital ecosystems. So when soils are biologically dead, we feed the soil with biologically-active, decomposed organic matter called compost, which is rich in beneficial microbes.
2) Using compost
Good compost supplies both the organic matter for soil building and the fertilizer for crops. Most importantly, it is packed with soil organisms that trigger biological activity. It inoculates the soil with microbes that will digest nutrients present in the soil and feed plants. Because of its unique characteristics, compost cannot simply be replaced with manure, natural fertilizers, or green manure.
3) Using mulch
With your soil biology in place, it's now time to feed it so that it can feed your plants. There are several ways to maintain the organic matter in soil from grass clippings, leaves, and straw to cover crops and compost. Over time, the actions of earthworms, bacteria, fungi, insects, and organic matter slowly break down soil components and release nutrients into the soil. This results in higher, healthier crop yields.
We also do the following for large-scale market gardens, grassland/pasture situations, food forests and permaculture orchards:
- Crop rotation (to mimic diversity)
- No mechanical tillage (or no till practices)
- Keeping soil covered with perennial cover crops
- Planting diverse perennial cover crops
- Rotating livestock between grazing areas
- Using chop and drop practices
- Allowing cover cropping and wood mulching
- Inoculating soil with mycorrhizal fungi
- Using woody mulch to feed fungi
- Creating self-sustaining fertility through nitrogen-fixing plants
| CLICK to watch farmers in Haiti implement these practices (7:21min) - also linked above