This handful of soil holds more living organisms than there are people on earth.
It is so easy to overlook the importance of soil. After all, it has always been there, under our feet. We build houses on it, creating streets and communities. It hosts forests, farmland, pastures, parks, and gardens.
It is easy to think of soil as being static… as just dirt, but as we zoom in, we see it is teeming with life. Just one teaspoon of soil can hold more organisms than there are people on earth.
Soil is a complex dance of chemical, mineral, and biological processes and we have a close relationship with soil and its health – even though it may not be immediately obvious.
What is soil?
Soil is one of the most diverse ecosystems on our planet. It first started to form around 400 million years ago and is made of weathered rock, broken down and dissolved by a combination of weather, plants, lichen, and microbes. We are looking at a span of around 3000 years for fertile soil to be created from scratch. To top this up, with even just 1cm of new soil, takes 200 to 400 years. Soil is definitely not a renewable resource.
Soil is a living organism. It is a hotbed of biological and chemical reactions created through the interaction of plants, animals, and microbes that live in the soil, along with those that live on it. It is these processes that underpin life on our planet as we know it.
Why is soil important?
95% of our food relies on soil for its production. Soil anchors plants and feeds them so they can grow. Farm animals are fed on plants and in turn, plants and animals are our main sources of food.
Soil is vital to our food security, which is rapidly becoming an issue. Business as usual is showing itself to be unsustainable, and governments across the globe are starting to grapple with how to make sure their population gets fed. This is not just in far flung places, but here too in the UK. With reports such as the 2021 ‘Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk’ specifically mentioning issues of food security in its advice to the UK Government.
Combatting Climate Change
Soil is one of our most important weapons against climate change. Soil stores carbon, through a process known as carbon sequestration. The UK’s soil holds nearly 10 billion tons of carbon. That is equivalent to the total global emission for the entire planet for a whole year. Globally, soils store more carbon than the atmosphere, and all the world’s plants and forests combined.
Clean Water and Flood Prevention
Soil actively filters our water and helps to protect us from flooding. In the UK, there are around 130 trillion litres of water stored in our soils – more water than in all the UK’s lakes and rivers combined. When soil is healthy, it can store up to one and a half Olympic size swimming pool’s worth of water per hectare.
Poor soil does not hold onto water in the same way, causing it to run off. This depletes the soil further and exacerbates issues of pollution as nutrients enter watercourses. And of course, water run off only adds to the issues of flooding that we face.
Finding Solutions in Soil
In recent decades, our relationship with soil has been that of take, take, take – with little regard to the health of the soil that feeds us. According to the Soil Association, we currently lose topsoil between 10 to 40 times faster than it is formed. We are now realising that the answer to many of the serious issues we are currently facing as a society – climate adaption, safe and affordable food, clean water, flooding, and pollution – all begins, and depends on, the health of the soil and our relationship with it.
Nurturing Our Soil
On our farms, agricultural land, and in our gardens, there is the practice of exposing the earth and leaving it bare. When it rains on bare earth, it caused the nutrients to leach out which depletes the soil. It also causes the fertile topsoil to wash off, which can then become silt and pollution in our waterways.
Soil depends on the relationship between microbes and plants to thrive, so the agricultural industry is fast learning the importance of green manure and cover crops – plants that are grown so the soil is not left bare when the food crops are harvested.
We can learn from this in our gardens by using green manure (such as Vicia sativa) which keeps the soil in good condition, retaining nutrients, and improves its ability to hold moisture. Incorporating the green manure into the soil when it is time for it to be cut back nourishes it greatly.
Things you can do in your garden to nurture soil:
- Compost your food waste and add it to your garden.
- Take a ‘no dig’ approach to gardening. This protects the life of the soil and helps reduce surface evaporation, which helps the soil retain moisture.
- Smother the soil with planting. Ground cover plants are great for this job. Good candidates are creeping herbs like creeping thyme, Thymus serpyllum, in a sunny spot or sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, for the shade.
- Use green manure, such as Vicia sativa, in the time gaps between planting to avoid bare earth.
- Mulch with well rotten, biodegradable mulches such as compost, manure, or wood chippings to help boost the fertility and structure of the soil.
- Grow a diverse range of plants, including ones that are really beneficial to soil health, such as clover, legumes, and trees.
- Be organic in your gardening.
When we understand the issues, we are in a much better position to do something about it. You can also:
- Support organic farmers by buying their produce.
- Raise awareness by sharing what you have learnt about the issues and the things we can do to help. Learn more about what you can do by visiting websites like the Soil Association Scotland.
- Support the Soil Association and other likeminded organisations who are campaigning to make our governments take action to protect our soil.
‘Our planet is called ‘Earth’ for good reason. Soil is one of our most important natural resources. It is the planet’s skin, a rich and complex ecosystem that provides the life systems we all need to survive: oxygen, clean water, and food. It is no exaggeration to say that civilisations rise and fall according to the health of the soils on which they are built.’ – Soil Association 2021
Let’s look after it!
Designer and Director of Lynn Hill Garden Design, Lynn loves designing wonderful green spaces and has worked on a wide variety of projects – from small townhouse courtyards, to sprawling country landscapes. She has created gardens at Chelsea Flower Show, Hampton Court Flower Show, and Gardening Scotland, as well as working with BBC TV as a Design Consultant for Beechgrove Garden COP26 Special.
Lynn is passionate about sharing her vision and skills. Having a 1st Class Honours Degree in Community Education from the University of Edinburgh, as well as an HNC with Distinction in Garden Design, she brings a dedication to social and environmental purpose. She has been honoured with many awards which stand testament to her devotion, skill, and attention to detail.
Green spaces can be sanctuaries that nourish us, heal us, inspire us. Lynn encourages us to view our gardens as an extension of our home, and embrace the benefits they bring to our health and wellbeing.
A member of the Scottish Ecological Design Association, and Women In Property, Lynn also finds time to work alongside Scottish Actor Gordon Brown to create a holiday respite home for families with children affected by cancer for the Eilidh Brown Memorial Fund.
See more of Lynn’s work at www.lynnhillgardendesign.co.uk