If you are like me, you feel very virtuous as a gardener–even to the point of snarling at your significant other when he suggests that you might occasionally want to put down your shovel and come inside to do a load of laundry. One’s important, the other just a waste of so much mortal life.
But you might not entirely understand WHY you’re so virtuous, except that there is something in all the composting you do and mulching and manuring and feeding wood ash from the fireplace to the lilacs and covering up of bare soil with beautiful plants that feels like stewardship. And when I see my neighbors going at their soil-starvation program full bore with their leaf-blowers and rakes and herbicides and lawn chemicals, I only want to redouble my efforts.
It turns out all that babying of the backyard dirt IS important. Do not miss Charles Mann’s terrific piece in September’s National Geographic about good soil, a natural resource that is disappearing all over the world at an alarming rate. The accompanying slide show is pretty great, too.
Soil is being destroyed in rich countries like ours by farm machinery that compacts it and in poor countries by the removal of trees and grasses that prevent erosion. The good news is that the methods that work to restore soil are shockingly low-tech, all about manipulating the terrain to prevent runoff and adding organic matter of all kinds–as well as perennial plants that send long roots into the soil to aerate it and feed the fascinating microorganisms working down there.
Mann brilliantly concludes that the underlying problem is the same everywhere: political and economic systems that don’t understand soil. I’d only add that that is a function of profound ignorance. Why are my kids learning about the constellations in school–pretty but useless–and not a single thing about the science of the earth that feeds them?