It is The International Year of Soils and very exciting too it is to ponder (Grand)mother Earth. Science knows more about outer space than the diversity of soil micro-organisms and the complexity of their interactions, the soil web of life. Knowing more about the universe beneath our feet is key to what seems be the issue of this century: how to feed the world, and in a holistic way that acknowledges nature.
At Ragman’s Lane Farm in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire, they are using biofertilisation, a practice which represents a ground-breaking new awareness of how to cultivate soil fertility. Organic and bio-dynamic growers already know the value of compost, green manures and dynamic accumulator plants such as comfrey. These foster bio-availability of minerals for plants, making crops naturally resilient and productive. Creative experimentation with biofertiliser teas by field leaders Jairo Restrepo (Brazil) and Elaine Ingham (US) is taking understanding a whole leap further still. This truly holistic approach ‘soups up’ the web of life in the soil.
Science bit. Very briefly, plants exchange sugars for minerals with fungi and bacteria. Fungal mycelium (the cellular threads by which fungi spread) brings minerals from far and wide so that, if say a soil is lacking in the micronutrient selenium, a fruit tree can ‘request’ the mycelium to bring it. This could be from a source even a kilometre or more away. Similarly, bacteria living in root nodules swap nutrients for minerals they process.
In the pictures you see farmer Matt Dunwell and permaculture students making a biofertiliser ‘tea’, though it is more like a soup. Woodland duff (leaf litter and the soft, crumbly layer of soil underneath), full of fungal mycelium, has twigs removed. Wheat bran and molasses are added and the whole rubbed together to make an anearobic starter, as for yoghurt or sourdough. Later, fresh ruminant manure (eg from a cow) full of ‘good’ bacteria, spring water, local rock salt, milk and more molasses are added. After four days the first portion full of mycelium, can be drawn off, diluted and sprayed on fruit trees and shrubs. A few days later the second portion, full of good bacteria, is excellent for annuals and pasture. Health and production of crops is improved.
In the 20th century processes for making bombs and nerve gas were turned to making fertilser and pesticides. The globe is still reeling from this with soil microflora bombed and poisoned. Agriculture sees impoverished nutrition resulting in human disease; it follows that if our soils and crops are impoverished, so is human nutrition. A plant lacking selinium cannot provide us with this essential micronutrient either. Biofertilisers offer an approach to restore vitality to soils depleted by misguided, or outright wrong, chemical approaches.
By allowing soil to be whole and to heal we allow our food to be whole and to heal us. By opening to nature, which will be whole if we allow it, our connection heals. In contemplating the soil and its web of life, an understanding can arise of the interconnectedness of all life and, indeed, consciousness. The vision for Viveka Gardens is to relax and connect though yoga practices and hands in the soil.