In this post I try to explain why cracking as seen in dry, hard clay soils is not as bad as it seems and no reason for panic. Then I compare my dry cracked soils to the plowed soils of the neighbor.
Then I proceed to explain my thoughts on soil fertility and different methods of improving the soil, only to conclude that it is better to do nothing instead of these methods.
The dry cracks appear in the soil
The dry season has approached and it has not rained for around 3 to 4 weeks…
As the days went on without rain, the heavy clay soils on the farm started to dry out and crack.
Some cracks are nearly 1 to 2 meters deep; 2 to 10 meters long; and 5 centimeters wide. Cracks especially appear in areas where the soil is exposed because there is a little ground cover and little mulch. But even in areas where there is a thick layer of mulch and ample vegetation, there are lots of small cracks.
The soil has become very hard, it would be impossible to plow or till; it is a good thing then that I do not plow nor till.
Of course, hard dried-out dry cracked soil is not good as it blocks oxygen, roots, and water going into the soil.
And yet the cracks allow oxygen, roots, and water to get even deeper into the soil. At the same organic matter falls into the cracks so that humus can reach further into the soils.
In the rainy season, the clay soils will expand and cracks close up, trapping organic matter deep in the soil between the cracks. Not even a tiller or plow can incorporate organic matter 1 to 2 meters down into the earth.
As time passes by with the changing of the seasons’ cracks open and close, soils contract and expand.. slowly organic matter builds up and accumulates being spread into the soil with constant contraction and expansion.
Eventually as the organic matter content increases; roots spread around; and microbial and insect activity increases, the soil structure changes. Once the soil structure improves the cracking will be less and less and the soil permanently more light, fertile, and permeable to oxygen, water, and roots.
This is nature’s way of soil improvement.
What I have described above can only happen if the soil is never plowed/tilled and if a permanent green cover is grown with mulch underneath, as its done in nature.
My land has permanent vegetation on it with mulch underneath even during the middle of the dry season. I even dare claim my land, except for the forests is the only land that is green in the midst of the dry season out of all the farms in the area.
Everywhere around it looks like a desert.
My neighbor plows his fields and grows nothing at all during the dry season. His land has not a single plant on it, not even a small weed nor a blade of grass.
His soil is completely exposed to the elements such as sun, wind, and rain.
Granted his soil does not crack, because it has been plowed. The texture is almost like sand or a very dry crumbly clay. This kind of soil actually has a good structure that allows oxygen, water, and roots to easily penetrate, and it is easy to plant.
Besides no vegetation there is also not a single insect in his soils, neither is there any organic matter at all.. the soil is totally devoid of life.
Meanwhile, insects on my land actually use the cracks and mulch to build nests and hide from the intense sun. The digging activities of these insects further improve the structure of the soil.
Birds come to our farm every day looking for food from plants and grasses. The birds avoid the other lands because there is no food there, they either come to my farm or to the forests I basically never see birds go to the neighboring farms, but on my land every single day there are birds flying and hopping around.
Rats and lizards roam around the land seeking shelter between the vegetation while hawks and eagles hunt these critters. At night bats take a yummy snack from the nightly insects. And bees get food from all the flowers that are growing.
This is a daily scene on our natural farm, being the same throughout the wet and dry season.
So even tho my soils are hard, dry, and dry cracked, it is full of life in the middle of the dry season!
What is soil fertility? The paradox of soil fertility
How is it that the neighbor’s soils have a very good structure optimal for plant growth, yet his soils do not support abundant life except for the occasional mono-crop of rice or sugar cane;
yet my soils are horrible for plant growth but still allow a variety of abundant life forms from insects to animals to thrive with permanent green vegetation?
Also, note that the neighbor and I basically started out with the same soils, I mean our lands are right next to each other. The only difference is that he plowed his soils and I did not(thing).
This paradox can only be explained by how I would like to define soil fertility which comes in 3 parts:
- Microbial and insect activity or life in the soil; a lively soil.
- Nutrients in the soil.
- Structure of the soil.
All of these three stack on each other, but also interconnect and influence each other.
The more microbial and insect activity in the soil the more nutrients become bio-available, which increases organic matter. The more organic matter, the more the soil structure improves.
At the same time the more organic matter there is, there more microbial activity increases. And the better the soil structure becomes the more microbial activity can spread and penetrate.
Many farmers believe that growing crops on infertile soils is not possible and that growing crops on fertile soils deplete soil fertility.
I am here going in the complete opposite direction.. claiming that growing crops on infertile soils improves fertility and growing crops on fertile soils either stabilizes or improves fertility, but this can only be done without plowing; without fertilizers; and without monocultures.
If the soil structure is too compact like in heavy clay soils then as I described before it is very difficult for water, oxygen, and roots to penetrate. The positive thing is that compacted soils retain more nutrients and are less susceptible to wind and rain erosion.
If the soil structure is too light like sand then the water penetrates too quickly and dries out fast. Sand also washes away with rain and blows away in the rain. The good thing is that it allows oxygen, water, and plant roots to penetrate easily.
So a soil structure that is exactly in the middle is the best, neither too sandy but neither too clayey.
This can only be achieved by increasing organic matter and promoting microbial activity.
To make sandy soils better one should increase organic matter, and to make clay soils better one should increase organic matter, and to increase organic matter one should grow plants; it is as simple as that. Just grow plants. A combination of trees and groundcover is the best as it is how it’s done in natural forests.
Tree roots break up the soil by reaching deep down. At the same time groundcovers protect the soil and can periodically be cut to provide mulch for trees.
Microbes and insects tunnel in the soil essentially plowing it. No plow or tiller by man can ever dig the soil on a microscopical level, but nature can.
Note that some other people have different definitions of soil fertility, because they look at different aspects of soil, therefore they may conclude a soil is fertile when it’s infertile or that a soil is infertile while it is fertile.
Some people also forget the aspects of time in soils.
For example, the soils of the deserts have the potential to become fertile and the soils of the rainforest have the potential to become infertile.
It all depends on what one does to the soil.
When looking at only one aspect of soil fertility one will wrongly do bad practices that only hurt the soil.
For example, one may increase soil structure by plowing, but plowing decreases microbial activity and makes the soil more susceptible to erosion.
One may also increase soil nutrients by adding chemical fertilizers, but chemicals kill 98% of microbial activity within 1 to 3 years causing organic matter to decrease.
One may also add organic fertilizers, but organic fertilizers take a lot of effort to produce and implement, they are also expensive.
There is even some that say organic fertilizers make certain microorganisms such as fungus lazy and weak which makes the plants that depend on them less resilient to droughts.
One can also increase microbial activity by growing and adding more microbes. Like producing organic fertilizers this is time-consuming and expensive.
Other than that there may also be the negative effect that the added microorganisms may displace the native microorganisms. And if there are too many microorganisms and not enough organic matter then the microbes will eat up all organic matter causing the system to be unbalanced. Without plenty of food in the form of organic matter for the microbes, it is pointless to add extra microbes.
Some people insist on adding compost and garden soil on top of the soil. Although this is good it can only be applied to a small area. Adding compost and garden soil to a 1+ hectare farm is a near-impossible task and incredibly expensive if buying garden soil. Also, garden soil is made from compost, and compost is made from plants, which means plants had to be grown on somebody else’s land, composted, and transported to you. This in turn decreases the soil fertility of the other lands. It basically just a game of moving fertility around the world, it does not actually help increase the fertility of the planet.
One can improve all 3 aspects at the same time, microbes, nutrients, and structure by digging course organic matter such as woodchips, branches, tree trunks, and straw into the soil either with shovels or by bulldozers and excavators.
The only problem with this is that it takes a huge amount of effort and money. Besides consuming a large amount of oil, creating air pollution, and first needing to cut down trees to obtain course organic matter.. many farms of the world are not accessible with such large equipment, especially in poor and mountainous regions. And most farmers of the world are too poor to undertake such a project.
There is another way to increase all 3 aspects while consuming no oil and having little effort. That is by simply growing a permanent groundcover and then occasionally cutting it down and putting it on top of the soil. This creates a thick protective layer of mulch exactly how it happens in nature.
In this method everything is produced on-site; it does not rob soil fertility from somewhere else; requires little effort; and causes no pollution.
What is soil erosion?
Soils are constantly exposed to the three previously mentioned soil eroding elements namely:
At the same time, these 3 elements are also the same elements that make plants grow well. Another paradox of nature.
As long as the soils are protected from these 3 eroding elements then the 3 aspects of soil fertility will improve and damage minimized.
Sun dries out the soil and kills off microbial activity. Wind also dries the soil and blows away the topsoil, while water washes away the soil and its nutrients.
To prevent these 3 soil eroders from having a large impact the soil should always be protected. To do this the soil should have permanent vegetation on it with a thick layer of mulch on the soil. This naturally occurs in forests.
Trees block sunlight and UV radiation from reaching the soil preventing drying out and preventing the death of microorganisms.
Trees also reduce wind speeds, further preventing drying of the soil.
And trees together with groundcover reduce the speed of raindrops falling so that the soil does not wash away, further mulch and roots hold the soil together preventing more damage of water taking away nutrients.