GARDENING

From the ground up: The importance of good soil

By Megan Mackenzie 16 February 2021

Photo: Unsplash.com

Hoping for new beginnings and a fresh start of sorts? Look no further than in the garden, where it all starts with the soil.

For many years now, a theory has floated and made the headlines, often repeating that globally it seems that we only have about 60 (or 100, depending on the publication) harvests left, after which there will be insufficient topsoil for the survival of functional living systems. Although this claim has since been debunked and still lacks scientific backing, it still is astounding to think that soil takes aeons to be formed from the weathering of rocks, and in fact, a rather shorter time to be depleted.

Travel journalist, author and conservationist Isabella Tree is the new guru on soil care, and in her book Wilding — the Return of Nature to a British Farm, published in 2018, she outlines her take on soil restructuring and rebuilding. The book, which was awarded the 2019 Richard Jefferies prize for nature writing, has been held up as “… a masterpiece of persuasion that represents a monument to Isabella’s obsession with soil”.

Photo: Dylan de Jonge / Unsplash.com

In it, she tells the reader that the soil is a living, complex organism, full of potential antibiotics, explaining that, “We need to connect humus with humility, and start to respect it again.” As an extension of the book, she and her husband, Charlie Burrell, who farm at Knepp Castle in West Sussex in the UK, are about to bring out their Wilding Handbook, which will give a step-by-step guide to re-energising our soils.

Then, for more on the importance of our soils, the wonderful Kiss the Ground documentary, narrated by Woody Harrelson shows how, to quote Maverick Life’s Tevya Turok Shapiro, “to save the world with dirt.” And have you read Roger Deakin’s book Wildwood, in which he talks of the spirit of trees: in nature, in our souls, in our culture, and our lives? And of course the inimitable David Attenborough in his latest film A life on our Planet, where he talks of the destruction we are causing to our ecosystems. 

There is a common theme throughout all these findings, that is, that we need to give renewed life to the land, no matter how big or how small.

For our gardens, we should look to the forest floor for inspiration and emulate all the elements that are there. There are so many people doing pioneering work in this area, but having worked with Arlo Mitchell and Sarchen Bassingthwaighte, I can recommend their product, new on the market – Soil Builder.

Arlo Mitchell and Sarchen Bassingthwaighte’s Soil Builder (Photo: Supplied)
Garden in preparation – ‘rewilding’ of the soil (Photo: Supplied)
Garden, 10 months later (Photo: Supplied)

Based only in the Cape at this stage, their product and application introduce everything healthy soil and healthy plants require, all wrapped up in a reusable hessian sack, and incorporating a small inoculant ball which kickstarts all the good work. It includes lucerne, raw thatch and reduced salt pan ocean water.

This combination protects the soil from harmful UV and drying winds, while retaining moisture, avoiding the leaching of nutrients, improving flower quality and resilience in plants, which in turn assists in the uptake of carbon from the air, halves the requirement of organic fertiliser, removes the need for traditional mulching and compost materials, and thus kickstarts the ‘rewilding’ of your soil. There is that word again. Phew!

Most importantly, it introduces a broad spectrum of beneficial microorganisms: once spread over your soil, and well-watered in, voilà, your plants turn into Triffids. 

Marion Cran (1879 – 1942) a horticulturist and garden writer 100 years ago wrote in her book If I Where Beginning Again: “If I wanted to have a happy garden, I must ally myself with my soil; study and help it to the utmost, untiringly. Always, the soil must come first.” From the ground up, it starts with the soil. DM/ ML

To contact Arlo Mitchell, email him at [email protected]

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