Soil: Care and Feeding for Crop Success

The Carbon Economy Series presents Rodale’s Elaine Ingram: March 12-13

By Iginia Boccalandro

Can you imagine if you could grow anything you wanted with the soil in your yard? If you could use less water, produce more biomass and build fertile soil that is immune to pests with less costly inputs?  Yes, here in New Mexico, shelter from the wind and cold would also be a part of the equation.  Does this sound too good to be true?  Well, Dr. Elaine Ingham, PhD, soil biologist and soil food web instructor, not only says that this is possible, but she will be in Northern New Mexico on March 12-13 to teach us how to do it.

Our planet, for most of its existence, was inhospitable to life until the recent arrival (in terms of planetary time) of a cyanobacterium able to transform sunlight energy into chemical energy stored in bonds of simple sugars.  Known as photosynthesis, this process uses carbon dioxide and water, and oxygen is one of its most important byproducts, thus setting the stage for life as we know it.  Most plants, algae and cyanobacteria perform photosynthesis while maintaining atmospheric oxygen levels and supplying all the organic compounds and most of the energy necessary for life.

Looking at the succession of life forms evolving over thousands of millions of years, blue green algae could be looked at as the first step; these tiny, one-celled organisms evolved into multi-celled organisms including plankton, annual plants, perennial plants/grasses, shrubs, vegetables, deciduous trees/soft woods and finally to giant conifers and hard woods like the giant sequoia, trees that are often thousands of years old.  Paolo Lugari, founder of Las Gaviotas in Colombia, calls all of these the “vegetative skin of the earth,” which create the conditions for us to be here, now.

It turns out that the living microbiology in the soil underneath this “vegetative skin” changes in composition and provides the ideal conditions for each successive species.  Here is where it gets interesting: for example, since the ratio of bacteria to fungi shifts radically between grasses and conifers, knowing this can make us much more successful at growing things.  Soil that is bacteria dominant is good for the pioneer species like grasses, fungi dominant soil is good for the conifers, and vegetables do well with equal amounts of bacteria and fungi dominant soil.  Knowing this, we can become soil managers and tweak this relationship based on what we want to grow.

Think about it. Instead of being at the mercy of the soil in the back yard or the bunches of chemical and mineral additives that we are encouraged to buy, we can build soil so that the conditions for “our crop” naturally occur.  In other words, if you want to grow apricots and you know what the ideal soil composition is for these trees, you can make it so.

Dr. Ingham teaches us to feed the life forms that we want.  Because fungi love sugar and carbohydrates, the hardwood trees roots systems will exude sugars to attract them and have them work for their benefit.  It is an amazing symbiotic relationship that allows trees to get the nutrients they need by attracting the microbiology that produces it.

Dr. Ingham teaches biological solutions instead of chemical solutions.  All of these processes are natural and follow scientific and physical laws.  Once we understand them, then we can apply them and learn to use them. The processes may include methods like composting for greater fertility, reducing soil compaction and being able to store more water.  Dr. Ingham will speak from 7-9 pm on Wednesday, March 12 on the Soil Food Web at the Santa Fe Community College, and will then teach an all-day workshop from 9 am- 5 pm at Northern Community College in Espanola on Thursday, March 13.  Please visit our web page or call (505) 819-3828 for more information.

The Carbon Economy Series is a New Mexico non-profit dedicated to teaching sustainable principles and practices for a more sustainable future.