From the demonised beetle to crop rotation, Fiann Ó Nualláin spells out what’s necessary to ensure good soil health and help the environment.
The ancient Egyptians are accredited with quite a lot — so much that it would seem that they were the originators of civilization.
They invented architecture and sacred geometry — but Newgrange (Brú na Bóinne) is older than the pyramids. They invented a symbolic language but our own Ogham is symbolic of trees. They had a sun god — we had the Dagda. They invented medicine but Dian Cect had a herb for everyday of the week and every illness — he even possibly invented the first prosthetics if not an actual bionic arm.
The Egyptians had sacred revered gardens — we had glasíns. They had technology — but what was Balor’s eye if not laser or mirror refracted solar power? They had interrelations with beings from the stars — but the Tuatha Dé Danann came to Ireland in crystal ships that sailed in the air. The Egyptians had political corruption, a sexualised priesthood and a two-tiered health system — need I say more.
Well they did have one thing over us: The scarab. Their most revered icon — a beetle — but no ordinary beetle a dung beetle. And in the elevation of that creature they showed an ecological awareness - an understanding of the fertility cycles of soil. Our Irish beetles are somewhat demonised as creatures that scurry beneath ground — devils — so we not only find common names such as the devil’s coach horse etc -but also associated bad superstition.
OK, that may be negative propaganda originating from the 10th century when monks began to rewrite our culture and history and natural history into a Christian narrative — instead of looking at its miraculous work in pulling leaf litter below the soil to improve soil fertility — it was its nocturnal appearances and its dark appearance that fitted scaremongering.
Soil is nothing without its living population of beetles, nematodes and worms and more. And all of that could not be totally obscured in the attempt to take our eyes to heaven and away from the earth.
You know I am a fan of proverbs (my latest book, all good bookstores, yada yada) for I think of them as the codified wisdom of our ancestors, passing secrets and success tips onto the next generation. I know of one that shows we were not so ignorant of ecological respect for soil.
I don’t know if this seanfhocail predates St Patrick and his followers — but my granddad who kept an allotment used to say: “Muck is the mother of a good nosebag.” Not very eloquent but effective. The soil is the giver of food. The horse muck he shovelled onto it in November was its food. The plot fed him and his family all year and just after Halloween, he fed it back.
Organic gardeners have been saying for decades feed the soil, not the plants — as a way of imprinting a chemical-free sustainability — well, we had all better feed the soil if we want it to feed ourselves. If you want a good nose bag then get the muck right.
So how do we maintain soil health and keep the health of the planet and our own wellbeing intact?
Here’s six of the best...
Start a compost heap. Knock a few pallets together and heap your leaves and kitchen waste into it – you will not only get a brilliant soil enricher once it breaks down but you will also be creating a habitat for beetles and other beneficial ground allies.
Practice crop rotation — not only is this the best way to stay a step ahead of disease and soil borne pests but it is also about fertility management as you move low nutrient needing crops into the beds recently depleted by heavy feeding and let nitrogen-needy veg follow nitrogen-enriching peas and beans.
Protect soils organisms. Avoid chemical fertilisers that contribute to soil depletion by being Ph altering and interfering with earthworms populations and natural reproduction cycles of microorganisms. Instead, use natural fertilizers – be that homemade liquid drenches, leaf mould, farmyard manure or your own compost.
Get coverage. This is about the bare soil debate — if we don’t grow over winter or maximise growing from spring to autumn, then the bare beds and the empty patches contribute to water runoff whenever it rains. The answer is that we grow more catch crops between our crops or install wildflower or companion strips between beds/rows/places. These, in light of the insect decline, maybe medicinal strips – filled with antibacterial borage for ailing bees as a starting point.
Think less dig or go no-dig. Every time we turn soil we oxidise the parts exposed to the sun and that lessens their water-holding and nutrient load, as well as potentially destroying the healthy bacteria they contain. So less disruption is better for yield success. Militant no-diggers and kale smoothie drinkers bore me — but I do try to be as no dig or minimal dig as possible. It does work on many levels.
Feed the soil — that old mantra again but it’s the key to success. And yes, you don’t have to dig it in - you can top dress and you can brew your compost into a super-strength soil drench. Now is traditionally the time to dig in manure and compost — to attend to feeding the soil so it will feed us again in spring. Even if you overwinter crops you can add nutrients now but you can also feed in spring, midsummer and as you harvest out in late summer and autumn. It doesn’t have to be a one serving wonder. A little often is better than a once off tick the box.
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