Why we should educate children about the crazy cool soil food web and life-giving mycelial networks, while they are very young — while their neural networks are determining whom they could become as philosophical, well informed change-makers.

There is a groundswell of interest of late in the food-health connection, and in all things gardening, farming, and soil-borne.

Many say that change for the better is too slow. I say that all positive change is good, and if we all just do our own bit to the greatest degree possible at all levels of our personal and professional lives, like tiny pixels building on a page, the big green and beautiful picture will surely take care of itself.

We are growing a grass-roots green revolution — and not from the ground up, rather from below. From the soil of course, that inches-thick top layer of land in which minerals, organic matter, liquids and gasses, organisms and intuition, grows food for all forms of terrestial life, stores and purifies water, moderates weather, and houses millions of species of organisms.

We are waking up to the connections between how and where food is grown, and our quality of life — of our future. Landscapes and marketplaces are changing, greening, becoming more transparent, accountable and responsive to consumer demand.

Very soon, I predict, we will see market gardeners and purveyors of fruits, vegetables, fungi, even meat and dairy, advertising the nutrient-density of their offerings. The market, I believe, will demand it.

Nutrient-density refers to the ‘nutritional bang for your buck’ expressed as so-called healthful or positive affect vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean protein and healthy fats, versus calories, sometimes as a ratio and/or percentage of recommended daily allowance.

As mainstream media and celebrity-endorsed documentaries educate and inspire us to consider the beneficial connections between organic land care, regenerative agriculture, soil-borne nutrition, and physical and mental health, we are driving change for the better, en-masse.

We are inspired to educate our children — to teach them about the soil food web and mycelial networks before even, we introduce them to the World Wide Web and social networks.

We are inspired to think critically and care deeply about nature. We are called to live sustainably and regeneratively, and to model those virtues to students and children whose responsibility and privilege it will become to live and work in partnership with nature, rather than attempt to dominate and tame it, as we so wrongly presumed to do.

The deeper that I dive into permaculture, most particularly all things related to soil food web health and its parallels to the rise and fall of civilizations, the deeper my understanding that soil health is fundamental to human and planetary health. If I were to consider a third career, most certainly I would become a soil biologist. Soil is beautiful, historic, insightful, forgiving, and infinitely fascinating.

Healthy soil grows healthy food, which in turn grows healthy humans. Healthy soil was designed by nature to work perfectly within natural systems fueled by sunlight, moderated by weather systems and landscapes, and managed by complex relationships between millions of seen and unseen species of plants, fungi, bacteria, nematodes, arthropods, protozoa, myriad microorganisms, birds and animals, to turn solar energy into food for all terrestrial life forms.

Simplified illustration of the magical, invisible, complex soil food web.

In a complex but beautifully simple below-ground symphony, animate and inanimate elements sequester carbon and create a perfect soil-borne diet for plants to grow strong, healthy, naturally disease resistant, and naturally nutrient-dense.

Stoic philosophers, prophets, indigenous cultures, soil health pioneers and other wise and selfless thought leaders have all understood that the health of the soil and the health of all kingdoms within, upon and around it are one and indivisible.

We knew it and we blew it. But we can fix it!

We now know that when we mess with nature, farm inorganically, till and strip soil, and apply harmful chemicals, we kill soil biology, erode and desertify landscapes, acidify oceans, and upset weather systems. Yikes!

In the doing of these well-intentioned (perhaps) but misinformed (certainly) deeds, we upset the natural balance of things and grow plants that, while quite possibly beautiful, fall short in nutrient-density.

Eating fresh, nutrient-deficient produce is likely better than eating none, and it is certainly better than eating mass-produced centre-aisle processed food, but we should nonetheless be aware of where our produce comes from, how it is grown, and whether or not we are getting the complex nutrition we need to thrive.

In-bed worm composts manage green waste, and provide food and habitat for beneficial microorganisms.

Better yet, we can grow our own produce, and grow it in home-grown ‘living soil’.

Living soil — soil that is top-dressed (not tilled) with organic compost full of bioavailable nutrition, kept uniformly moist and mulched, fortified with microbiology, fungi and natural source macro and micro nutrients, and planted diversely with zone appropriate food and companion plants, can and will produce healthy, resilient, nutrient-dense crops that are naturally pest-resistant.

It sounds daunting, complicated and expensive, but it isn’t.

Can we create living soil overnight? No, but certainly it can happen quickly. Virgin soil can take thousands of years to make from scratch — that is turn stone into soil, through erosion and weathering, breakdown by microorganisms, etc.

Children love to feed in-bed compost worms, then tell their friends all about worm poop fertilizer.

The good news — the turning pixels into a big green and beautiful picture news — is that we can restore the huge quantities of spent and mismanaged soils (or dirt, a.k.a. dead soil) in our home gardens, farms, parks and public spaces relatively fast within just a few years, by mimicking nature.

The global fertilizer shortage can be a catalyst for change for the better.

“The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way”

Marcus Aurelius

We can and should return to the old and regenerative ways of growing food, but also apply technology and our relatively new understanding of ‘how and why’ that all worked.

Several market and large-scale conventional farmers have already made the switch to regenerative practices, and to huge environmental, social, and economic benefit. This is bottom-up change that can grow a revolution within a generation — a generation that grows organically, voting and spending and quietly extinguishing self-serving super powers and Super PACS.

One small thing that most home gardeners can do quickly, easily and inexpensively to enrich and aerate soil, and to bring it to life, is install an in-bed worm compost for managing green kitchen waste.

A lidded, five-gallon bucket with sides and bottom drilled with 1/4″ holes makes an ideal in-bed compost.

Sinking a small or large lidded, food-grade bucket drilled thoroughly sides and bottom with 7mm holes, into a large planter or raised garden bed will provide a good home for compost worms to manufacture plenty of black gold worm casting (poop) all-natural fertilizer for your plants.

The green and brown biomass that the worms consume and excrete will move in and throughout the soil with the worms, and kickstart a microbiological waste-nothing symphony of its own.

The worms will poop carbon-enriched castings which will attract other microorganisms, which will attract other organisms, all of which will poop and eat (each other and the poop) and decay and build soil structure and porosity, and so on and so on, all the while contributing to soil and plant health.

A handful of red wriggler compost worms, a lidded bucket and a drill can get you started. To learn more about how and why, visit my blog post In Situ Worm Composting, in which I share the scoop on poop with Modern Farmer publisher Frank Giustra.

A beautiful mess of red wriggler worms, composting paper pots, egg sacs and veggie bed clippings.

……..

On that note, and as promised previously, I am pleased to share some very preliminary results of the ‘living soil vs sterile soil’ trials I am running currently indoors, while I grow favourite and new varieties of tomatoes from seed for my home garden, and for Frank’s.

Day one of seed starting 10 tomato varieties in four different growing mediums, on heat mats, under artificial light.

I am not ashamed to admit that the process has been more complicated than anticipated, and I failed to anticipate the amount of fussing about, measuring and observation that comparison trials demand.

The good news is that I am indeed seeing results, and hopefully those results will help me, and also you, grow food that is more nutritious, more resilient, and better for the environment.

Seed maps help track constants, variables and observations over time.

There have been some disappointments, but those disappointments are universal across all four growing mediums (three living and one sterile) and two sources of water (rain and tap). My early assumption is that the non-thriving seed varietal is somehow compromised, or that there is something in the quality of air or artificial light that the varietal does not like.

This very thing happened to me last year with a single tomato varietal called Midnight Roma, but I was unable to pinpoint or exclude any single cause (soil, temperature, light, etc) of its ‘fasciation’ malady because I had no growing medium or water source variations or controls against which to compare.

Oddly beautiful Midnight Roma tomatoes, displays contorted symptoms of ‘fasciation’ during a 2021 heatwave.

Interestingly, that same seed varietal is doing well so far this year, in all three living soil samples. I conclude therefore, based solely on anecdotal evidence, that the extreme heatwave that we experienced last year was responsible for the contortions of my Midnight Romas. I wrote about last year’s tomato conundrum in a post titled The Economy of Resilience.

What is clear after three weeks of trials, comparing 10 varieties of tomato plant seedlings all grown in the same room, at the same soil temperature, under the same light, with the same low-speed fans running, is that varying soil and/or water conditions and composition have indeed influenced germination and growth rate and habit.

Early days yet, but the three living soil mediums appear to be producing superior results.

I have an idea how things will proceed moving forward, but I do not know. Neither do I know how the composition of the plants will be influenced or changed by growing conditions and inputs, or how any or all variables will impact disease resistance and response to climate stress, or the appearance and nutrient-density of plants and fruit.

There is a certain amount of energy and goodness pre-packed into every seed, and that energy gives seedlings what they need to grow up out of the soil and into the light. How long that on-board fortification lasts when its exists on its own in a sterile medium is impossible to know. I can guess though, based on visual indicators.

I am measuring and charting the height and stalk diameter of each seedling, noting germination rates, and comparing the root mass and habit of each plant as they are potted up. I will do that consistently as I go, and I will document observations about colour and leaf shape, and wilt and such over time.

Finally, I will measure the dissolved solids (sugars, vitamins, minerals, hormones, etc) in the tomato plant sap using a refractometer that I bought for our eldest daughter to use in her grade nine science project.

It’s not an exact science by any means, but it is a metric for comparison, and in the end I should be able to reach citizen scientist conclusions about the strengths, weaknesses and impacts of using living soil, sterile soil-less growing mediums, chlorinated tap water, and rainwater to grow tomato plants from seed, indoors.

You can see from the photos that all three living soils (three different recipes of varying complexity, all containing worm castings) appear to grow seedlings more quickly than the sterile soil. Improved germination rate and growth speed may indicate benefit and it may not. I expect that it does, but only time will tell.

Either way, I promise full disclosure.

In the interim, if you are interested in learning more about soil and the soil food web, consider a few of my favourite books on the subject:

  • Grow Your Soil by Diane Miessler is a very good read, simply illustrated and suitable for sharing with children.
  • Dirt to Soil by Gabe Brown chronicles the transition of his 5,000 North Dakota acres from conventional to regenerative farming, and is a satisfying read for soil geeks like me.
  • The excellent how-to organic garden book Building Soils Naturally was written by organic horticulturist Phil Nauta. I heard about Phil from a Gaia College instructor friend of mine.
  • Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of Washington, David Montgomery’s two books, Dirt, and The Hidden Half of Nature dig deep into the erosion of civilizations and the microbial roots of life.
  • And finally, The Soil Will Save Us by Kristin Ohlson is one book I return to again and again for its well-researched insight and memorable wisdoms.