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Soil Ecology: The Basics of Fertility

Table of Contents

Living SoilSoil Food WebSoil Nurture

Soil Nurture

Soil Testing

Most of us have grown up thinking that soil fertility revolves around the question of what we need to buy and add to soil to bring it into balance and heightened productivity. We look to soil tests to guide us in making the proper purchased applications. Certainly when we begin working with a piece of ground, especially if it has been badly abused, there may be additions we need to make. Be cautious about soil tests, however. There is no unified approach to soil testing. Different laboratories use different procedures, such as different solutions to extract soil nutrients; report results differently; and adopt different approaches to interpreting the results. For example, I remember how confused I was by test results I used to get from the Extension Service: They always noted that both phosphorus and potassium were “very high”—and then routinely went on to recommend application of chemical fertilizers containing 10 percent of each. Later, I worked with a soil consultant (a student of William Albrecht), who also noted the high levels of phosphorus and potassium, but who recommended “no fertilizer needed”—and indeed pointed out that it would be easy for my soil to rise to dangerously excessive levels of phosphorus, if I weren’t careful with certain organic matter applications such as manures. Since most soil analyses focus so much on crop needs for nitrogen, imagine my surprise when he also recommended no added nitrogen. When I asked about that, he replied dismissively, “Oh, with organic matter at the level you have, you don’t need any added nitrogen, except maybe a little for really heavy feeders like corn.”

Soil Nurturing Strategies

By all means, find and work with a competent soil consultant if you feel your soil has serious deficiencies or special needs. But I urge that your main focus be not on what you need to add to your soil, as purchased inputs, but on strategies to maximize the diversity, health, and population densities of your friends in the soil.

It is unfortunate but true that the key to doing so is largely to choose strategies directly opposite to almost all current agricultural practice, which are injurious to soil life in three ways:

The alternative to such destructive practices is to imitate natural soil ecologies in order to:

The “Soil Care Basics” articles, “Increasing Organic Matter and Mineral Availability” and “Protecting Soil Structure with Alternatives to Tillage”, present specific soil care practices based on the above ideas.