Soil Matters

November, 2013Franks-dirt edited-1


I can still remember the first attempts to grow food on my recently purchased Costa Rican farm. It was early in 1996. With great expectations I placed a few young tomato seedlings in the soil and waited. And I waited. Weeks went by and nothing happened. The plants didn’t die. They just didn’t grow any larger or produce any fruit. Something was very wrong. I now understand that, after many years of overgrazing and chemical abuse, the soil was worn-out.

I knew that it was possible to grow food here. The farmers market was full of beautiful, plump fruits and vegetables. However, much of this abundance was supported by chemical fertilizers and diseases were kept in check by fungicides and insecticides. I wanted to grow my food organically and not resort to agrochemicals. But how?

Since that day my efforts have been focused on helping the soil come back to life. I make compost and get animal manures from my neighbors. All of this is dug into the soil. I keep a wormery and add both worms and castings to the soil. I dig in pulverized phosphorus, potassium and magnesium rich rocks to add minerals to the soil. Because tropical soils tend to be too acid I add crushed limestone to balance the pH. I also use effective microorganisms (EM) to increase microbial life in the soil.

For the last year Walter and I have been working together to further enrich the soil. We are burying fresh plant material in the garden beds so now the composting is happening directly under the producing plants. Walter is making microbial inoculates from local forest litter. This addition to our soil further increases microbial activity. The garden just loves all this attention. The plants are stronger than ever and producing a wonderful abundance of food. These beautiful vibrant plants are also proving to be more resistant to insect and fungal attack.

It is all about working in harmony with nature to develop the right balance of nutrients, pH and microbial activity in the soil. If the soil is rich the plants are healthy. If the plants are healthy they are better able to defend themselves.

But why go to all this trouble to rebuild the soil? It is easy to grow nice plump fruits and vegetables with agrochemicals. However, looks can be deceiving.

It is important to understand that although commercial fertilizers will make plants grow they will not replace all of the minerals, nutrients and rich biotic life found in healthy soil. These nutrients are commonly depleted in overused or misused soil. If the soil is nutrient deficient the plant will also be nutrient deficient. The plant may look healthy but actually be weak needing insecticides and fungicides to protect it from disease.

Frank-at-work-190This got me thinking about the parallels between plants and people. We too need to maintain a delicate balance of pH. We too need access to good nutrition. We too need the right intestinal bacteria to properly digest our food and assimilate the nutrition. We can pump ourselves up with processed fats, sugars and carbohydrates and may even be able to get a nice rosy glow of health from eating food grown with agrochemicals. However, looks are deceiving. If our food is nutrient deficient we will also be nutrient deficient. Under that rosy glow the body may be weak needing supplements and pharmaceuticals to stave off disease.

Like the plants we too depend on good nutrition to maintain our health. Ultimately, good nutrition for both the plants and those who eat the plants can only come from healthy soil.

Soil does matter.