“An agricultural adage says the tiny animals that live below the surface of a healthy pasture weigh more than the cows grazing above it. In a catalogue selling composting equipment I read that two handfuls of healty soil contain more living organisms thanthere are people on the earth. What these beings are and what they can be doing is difficult to even begin to comprehend,but it helps to realize that even though they are many, they work as one.”
— Carol Williams,
Bringing a Garden to Life
by Leslie Sauer
[ed. note: Although the techniques beloware presented in the context of larger-scale, re-forestation restoration projects,many of the ideas and principles can beusefully applied to smaller scale projectson a variety of sites.]
he objective in restoration is torestore the nutrient cycling andenergy flow of the historic soil system.First, work to protect existing soilresources and then explore techniquesto increase the overall biomass of thesoil and to foster the diversity ofnative soil flora and fauna.
Identify, protect, and monitorareas of native soil that are relatively undisturbed.
Most areas contain places wherethere is less-disturbed soil that canserve as rough models of local soilconditions. Studying the more natu-ral soils at the same time remediationis being documented in a disturbedlandscape will provide a standard formeasuring the success of differentapproaches. The natural sites alsoserve as propagation sources forlocally adapted microorganisms.
• Reduce local sources of soil contam-ination, including added nitrogen.
Evaluate local air pollutionimpacts, especially that of auto-mobile exhaust. Removing roadswherever possible is of paramountimportance, especially in morenatural areas. What is convenient,even to the restorer, such as easyaccess, may be lethal to the most jeopardized species. Educate thecommunity about regional air pollu-tion impacts. Many other manage-ment practices, such as pesticide use,also affect the realm of the soil. Themost popular herbicide, for example,glyphosate, which is often used tocontrol exotics, enhances conditionsfor bacteria but makes a poor sub-strate for the development of forestfungi.
• Recognize that the user isinseparable from the solution.
No treatment of soil will make itimpervious to compactions, erosion,and other such disturbances. Confineall use in forests and other naturallandscape fragments to designedtrails to minimize degradation fromfeet, hooves, and wheels. Prohibitionalone never is enough. Users willstay on trails to the extent that trailscreate the elements of satisfactionthat keep them there and provideaccess to desired destinations. Thegradual building of the litter layerand the absence of bare soil off thetrail are hallmarks of success.
• Minimize “working the soil.”
Despite a lot of knowledge aboutthe damage done to living systems by constant perturbation, there is stilla tendency to overwork soil. Beyondthe familiar structural damage, suchas that caused by working a heavysoil while it is wet or the erosion thataccompanies any soil disturbance,the soil’s level of microorganisms isalso severely affected. For example,plowing and any mechanical distur- bance to the soil will tend to fosterthe rapid growth of bacteria, whichin turn generate exopolysaccharides,which cause the soil to slump in rain.Other substances make soil hard towet, or hydrophobic. Cultivating soilis almost always deleterious to natu-ral areas and constantly resets thetime clock back to disturbance ratherthan allowing more complex, stable,and diverse soil systems to develop.We need to try new techniques, suchas planting new seedlings in logs orstumps, to avoid soil disturbancewhile enhancing survival. Anothertechnique is vertical staking—wooden twigs driven vertically intothe soil. Vertical staking serves toaerate and loosen the soil withoutdamaging the roots of existingvegetation, and it avoids the need tocompletely turn the soil. In addition,it favors the development of fungiinstead of bacteria because it incor-porates wood into the soil.
• Reevaluate the usefulness of current methods of stockpiling topsoil.
Harris, Birch, and Short (1993)describe the progressive impacts ofstockpiling, which is a frequentlyused method to retain a site’s topsoilduring construction. The first phaseis an instantaneous kill of many ofthe living creatures in the soil thatoccurs with the initial removal andstockpiling. During the next fewmonths there is a flush of bacterialgrowth as well as fungi but only inthe upper soil on the outside of thepile, the new “topsoil.” During thenext half year or so the soil stratifiesin layers. The primary distinctionsreflect the amount of oxygen in thesoil because of its depth in the pileor level of saturation with water.The developing layers consist of both near-surface aerobic and deeperanaerobic zones as well as a shiftingtransition area between them. Whenthe soils are restripped and replacedelsewhere, there is another instanta-neous kill of most living organisms,followed by a flush of bacterialgrowth.
• Experiment with alternativestrategies that better preserve nativesoil food webs when moving soil isnecessary.
Experiment with methods thatkeep soil horizons intact, such asmoving blocks of soil. Practitionersare using and modifying equipmentlike old sod forks and front-endloaders as well as developing newequipment, such as John Monro’ssoil mat lifter, for this purpose.
• Reevaluate the addition of organicmatter to enrich disturbed soils.
The continuous rain of airborne