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Soil Building

The gooey brown earthworms are as fat as my fingers and about 6 inches long. When I pull them out of their box, I make certain to jiggle them, just so. Invariably someone in the audience shrieks. Are they REAL!?
Theyre oversized jelly-plastic earthworms left over from a friends Halloween display, but my wiggly little friends make a great visual at my Organic Vegetable Gardening class series at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity. I also bring a copy of Bianca Lavies book, Compost Critters. Lavies took her magnifying camera out to her compost pile and photographed everything she found there arthropods, slime molds, pill bugs, fungi. Her in-depth photos (eew, I wont say gorgeous) remind us that the earthworms we love and squeal away from are only the visible part of a vast spectrum of life. And to be a successful organic vegetable gardener, you must learn how to take care of that soil life. It turns out that the soil critters worms, bugs, fungi, bacteria, protozoa, nematodes work in symbiotic relationships (in productive partnership) with your plants. The soil critters help break down particles within the soil into nutrients your plants can access. Without lively and active soil Healthy garden soil is ALIVE. life, your plants will starve.

The Secrets of

One teaspoon of compost may contain: 1 billion invisible bacteria (20,000 to 30,000 species of them), 400 to 900 feet of fungal hyphae (thread-like structures), 10,000 to 50,000 protozoa, and 30 to 300 nematodes. Then there are algaes and slime molds, and arthropods (insects or bugs), both visible and microscopic. --Lowenfels and Lewis

Tiny dogs are really popular pets right now. We all know what it takes to take care of one of those: Food. Water. Someone whos thinking carefully might mention shelter and protection. Not too many people remember to list air. Our earthworms and all their invisible compatriots need the same things: food, water, shelter, air. And as an organic gardener, its up to us to make sure they get what they need. Rather than taking care of our plants, to be better organic gardeners we should focus on taking care of our soil critters.

Environmental Change-Makers

What do you suppose happens to all these soil critters when we just this once apply petrochemicals? We sear them out of existence. We wipe the slate clean. We kill off this vulnerable network of soil life. Suddenly were dealing with stripped-out, dead, inactive dirt. And we wonder why our garden isnt doing very well. We then must pour more and more chemicals (marketed as fertilizer) onto this deadened soil in order to keep our plants going, because theres nothing alive in the soil to help feed our plant. Each application of sprays, weed killers, etc., perpetuates the dependency. Whatever had gotten established, whatever hatched from the few surviving eggs has now been obliterated. And were faced with starting the rebuilding process all over again. When we garden organically, the soil critters are our allies. The health of our plants depends upon them. Thus the essence of organic gardening is cultivating this rich series of symbiotic relationships.

Feed your soil. Your soil feeds your plants and your plants feed you.
-- Paraphrased from John Jeavons

Soil Building
1. Take care of your soil life provide food, water, air, shelter and protection. FOOD: Use compost fold it into your soil. Meanwhile, start making your own homemade compost. SHELTER: Use mulch like a quilt on top of your garden bed. WATER: Prevent runoff and erosion. Infiltrate rainwater. Irrigate long, slow, and deep. AIR: Keep your feet on the paths to avoid compacting your growing beds. PROTECTION: Quit the chemicals all of them.

2. Plant legumes (peas, beans) to capture nitrogen. 3. Rotate your crops to break the chain of soil-borne pests and nutrient depletion. 4. Consider growing green manures and carbon crops to provide raw material for your compost pile. 5. Compost everything you possibly can and build homegrown soil populations.

This is an excerpt from The Secrets of Soil Building, a booklet from Joanne Poyourow and the Environmental Change-Makers. Like what we do? Please help support our work: the full 42-page booklet is available through

Environmental Change-Makers