Let’s Talk Dirty

October 7, 2020 · 3 minute read
Let’s Talk Dirty

“The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life.” –Wendell Berry

Ok. Thats some pretty heavy stuff. Is soil really all of that?

Any serious biologist will tell you it absolutely is. It is the belly of the forest, and just as our physical condition as humans often waxes or wanes in unison with the biological condition of our bellies, any tree or group of trees will thrive or decline in unison with the biology of the soil in which it grows.

Biologically healthy soil is full of worms, fungi, bacteria, and a staggering number of other microorganisms. The healthy soils of a forest took hundreds of years to cultivate, and you don’t have to look far to see what that soil quality means. Our Virginia forest thrives green and brilliant in heat or cold, drought or flood, and under the steady pressure of almost every sort of predation and disease.

So this is an advice column, right? Lots of praise for mother nature’s work so far, but what’s the advice? It’s simple, really. If you’re looking to cultivate healthy soil for the trees in your yard, it is not clear to this arborist why you would look further than the great Mother herself. Here’s what she says:

  1. Leaf litter, mulch, or wood chips at the top layer is great!

Have you noticed that there are no leaf rakers in a healthy forest? Leaves are the great give-back from the trees to help cultivate their own soils. This layer absorbs and holds moisture, minimizes run-off or erosion, and helps to develop the humus layer.  

  1. Invite the Natural Tillers of the Soil.  

You may have noticed that there are no obvious tillers out there in the forest.  “Obvious” is the key word here. A healthy soil, as mentioned above, is absolutely full of organisms that eat, turn, and churn to give soils all the structure and composition that any growing thing loves. Your leaf or mulch layer will be a nice welcome mat for these organisms, but there are other natural ways to make the invitation irresistible. If you feel that your soils may not be fully alive, once you restart the natural process with organic supplements, it should be able to go along nicely all by itself.

  1. Minimize Compaction and Root Cutting

Needless to say, you won’t find many driveways or sidewalks in the forest. One of the most important features of soil is its “composition,” and an ideal soil is composed of 25 percent air. If we park, drive, or stack heavy things on the soil around a tree it can become compacted and lose its air pore space. Without that air space soil biology can break down. 

  1. Be Thoughtful about any Attempts to “Improve” on Nature’s Plan

We Americans are big on shortcuts and symptom repair. If a symptom of poor soil is a tree that is not as green and full as it ought to be, we will be tempted by any solution that promises a green tree as quickly as possible, even if the poor soil which is the cause of the symptom is not addressed. In some cases, the quick fix may even further damage the soil biology and create a lifelong dependency of this tree on the chemical “fix.”

This arborist’s advice is to always consider the natural solution first, and only turn to the more severe forms of life support as a last resort. I mean, it’s just really difficult to find any reason to question the original plan that gives me something like the oak and hemlock trees of the George Washington National Forest to my west, the bald cypress and pine trees of the Chippokes Plantation State Park to my east, and a whole host of trees native to Virginia along Rattlesnake Creek in my own back yard here in Richmond. The one thing they all have in common — natural, healthy, living soil.