In the 1950s Andy Warhol created a series of lithographs of fairies and putti holding flowers and showing off lots of exposed “bottoms”. He cleverly named the series “In the Bottom of My Garden.” About the time I saw one of these prints I had been thinking about soil and the robust, heady life it hides, which I discovered through an article I had recently read.
On the global front there has been ground-breaking (pun intended) research in two areas: the innate role of soil as a huge carbon storehouse, (with the calculation that we have unwittingly released billions of tons of carbon into our atmosphere through soil erosion due to poor soil management) and the importance of soil microbes to the health of soil and plants. Luckily good soil management can happen again and with that we can help reduce CO2 levels, increase productivity of our lands and turn back the clock on desertification.
Soil, plants, animals and the atmosphere thrive symbiotically. Life on Earth is successful because of the harmony between its parts. Microbes in the soil break down organic matter turning it into minerals plants can use, while in the process giving soil its tilth (good soil structure.) Some microbes have close relationships with their host plants, forming nodules on plant roots to help the plants uptake minerals more efficiently, others by producing hairy root‐like filament which actually becomes extensions of the host plant’s roots, giving the plant more vigor.
What about carbon? Plants take carbon from the air through photosynthesis (Hurray for Penny Pines!) and the carbon plants don’t use for growth they exude into the soil through their roots to feed soil organisms. There the carbon helps bind the soil and helps create soil fertility. But when soil is disturbed, as in tillage, the carbon and microbes are churned to the surface where the microbes die and the sun burns the carbon back into the atmosphere. Plant roots are broken and unearthed, disrupting the soil cycle. Insecticides kill microbes; chemical fertilizers inhibit microbial activity. When ground cover is destroyed and lays bare the soil, the soil with its carbon and microbes is blown to the wind and erosion and desertification begin. Yikes, scary! But knowledge is disseminating through the agriculture community worldwide. No tillage farming, reforestation, organic gardening and a host of beneficial practices are becoming more commonplace. There is hope that a new era of holistic gardening and farming will catch on because it saves our soil, sequesters carbon and increases crop productivity.
And what about our local soil? Unfortunately, South Florida coastal soils are notoriously thin and poor in nutrients. Our soils are mostly sand, marl and limestone, and nutrients quickly percolate away through the porous limestone bedrock during our rainy season. Here in our highly alkaline and deficient soils we need to choose plants wisely, fertilize and amend our gardens as organically as possible and mulch, mulch, mulch! Redland has pockets of reddish clay throughout the limestone base, from whence the area derived its name. And further inland we have the famous nutrient rich Everglades muck which our sugarcane crop relies on. The Everglades themselves and our mangroves are huge storehouses of nutrients and carbon, and currently there is much scholarly work being done on the mangroves’ role in helping to ameliorate climate change. (Let’s hear it for our Mangrove Project!)
It has been said that soil has one of the most bountiful and diverse ecosystems on earth. Who would have known? So, whatever our soil—be it terrestrial or semi-aquatic—let’s keep all those fairies and putti at the bottom of our gardens happy!
– Betsy Tilghman