BALANCE…and Soil

| Climate Change, Colorado Native Plants

by Deborah Lebow Aal with help from Jan Midgely and Carla DeMasters

This is a particularly odd time to be talking about native plants and gardening. As we continue to grapple with systemic racism in our country, and truly around the world, and the ever-present global pandemic, it’s a hard time to focus on non-human issues. We have to remember that we are all in this together – and that ALL humans (I will use the term homo sapiens, from now on) and superbugs, are part of the same ecosystem. In fact, we are all intertwined, and we appear to be way out of balance right now in so many ways. 

the soil food web illustration

One way, perhaps, to get back into balance, is to get back to basics, and focus on the anchor of the food web – soil. The Spring 2015 Wild Ones Journal had an article entitled Healthy soil as the foundation of Life on Earth. I will pull a few thoughts from that article, but first two thoughts on imbalance.

First, I am constantly struck by how homo-sapien centric we are. People want a garden, but what they want in it, almost universally, is plants that are aesthetically pleasing to them and plants they can eat. It is a rare person who thinks about what the rest of the ecosystem needs. It is so rare that I wonder whether this is ingrained in our DNA –  that to survive as a species, we think only about our own species? We are certainly quite adept at getting rid of other species, quickly.  So, to get back some balance, as we focus on treating ALL humans equally, we should think about treating other species equally as well. Think about using part of your landscape, if you are lucky enough to have one, for the benefit of other species (e.g., birds and insects – we are not talking about polar bears here).

Second, I am also constantly struck by the disconnect, or imbalance, between people wanting a healthy planet (I think we all do?), but not understanding how chemicals like glyphosate, the active ingredient in “Roundup,” and other non-selective systemic herbicides (which can kill most plants in addition to weeds), disrupt that. Glyphosate is particularly troubling to me in that I see it being used all the time, for everything from getting rid of dandelions in our lawns to large scale applications like treating acres and acres of noxious weed infestations. And yet it may have potentially  harmful effects on us, both directly and indirectly. So I digress for a moment to discuss glyphosate. 

Once sprayed on plant foliage, glyphosate is absorbed by the plant into the leaves and especially roots where it blocks an enzyme required for the plant to survive, eventually causing the plant to die. When the roots decompose, glyphosate can be released into the soil. The potential effects on soil organisms are still largely unknown. However, some studies have shown that glyphosate may have a detrimental effect on soil microbial community function and structure and may also reduce the activity and reproduction of earthworms.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified a potential ecological risk to mammals and birds from glyphosate. The Center for Biological Diversity has said “there’s a trove of peer-reviewed research by leading scientists that found troubling links between glyphosate and cancer.” Europe has banned the use of products containing glyphosate. In addition, the widespread use of glyphosate has led to an evolution of glyphosate-resistant weeds. That is just a nutshell of information of why glyphosate is a problem, but that’s enough for our purposes here. 

Okay, back to soil. Soil is the basis of our food web. There are decomposers in the soil – nature’s recyclers. There are many billions of organisms in one handful of soil, and they play an incredibly important role in breaking down dead plant and animal matter and releasing nutrients back into the food web in a form that plants can use. We are quite familiar with larger decomposers, such as earthworms, and vultures. But the tiny decomposers living in the soil are also incredibly important. The yeast, mites, fungi, protozoa, mycorrhizae, etc. are too tiny to see without a microscope, but there are literally billions in a teaspoon of good quality soil. We need to keep these tiny critters healthy to keep the food web healthy. 
The first item on the checklist, of healthy soil, is, not surprising given my diatribe above, to not use systemic herbicides like glyphosate, for the reasons mentioned above.

Second, we should limit soil disturbance. I like to put compost and mulch as a top dressing for the plants that need it (most natives don’t require additional nutrients as they are already adapted to the harsher soil conditions of the arid west), rather than digging it in. The more you disturb your soil, the more you disrupt the incredible diversity of life in that soil. Don’t walk on your soil. Use dedicated pathways and leave the rest to be undisturbed. Compacted soil is devoid of oxygen, and devoid of the many organisms needed for healthy soil. If your soil is already compacted, top-dressing will probably help.

Third, plant a garden with a high diversity of species, life forms and growth forms, including grasses and forbs, deep and shallow rooted species, perennials and biennials. My soil is always better when roots have gotten in to break up the clay, which allows moisture to penetrate deeper into the soil and provide a reserve for deeper rooted plants in droughts or dry spells. Different plants affect the soil differently. What is true for life above the ground is also true for life in the soil. The multitude of species living in our soil need a multitude of nutrients, found in different plants. So, the more the merrier.  Monocultures do not exist in nature.
And fourth, conventional wisdom states that dead leaves and other plant material are important organic matter for soil bacteria, as well as many insects. So, you will see much advice on leaving your leaves and letting them decompose throughout the garden. I must confess that, although I do this, and make my own mulch out of garden detritus, it is the living plant material that seems to make the biggest difference in my soil. Leaving the roots of dead plants to decompose also adds organic matter to the soil and seems to do a better job of it than adding top dressing. 
We need balance. We need to be better stewards of our ecosystem. We need to recognize that we are one with all other homo sapiens, and unfortunately, with superbugs, and we are part of an ecosystem that is vulnerable to our actions and needs our assistance. So, maybe, as we restore the imbalances and injustices we see in our society (we must…), we also restore balance to our ecosystem. Start with your soil. Start with your neighbors. Be kind. We must all strive to do better.

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