CULTIVATING CHANGE: the GROWING POWER of Getting Your Hands DirtyBy Luna Saldana Lopez, Sami Polumohanti, and Tamara Turchetta
We are all aware of the distressing state of the environment and are witnessing the impact of climate change. Living amid something so large happening all around us can make us feel very small and helpless in the face of it – like any individual paltry effort we could muster would be futile: too small or entirely overshadowed and erased by the continuing longstanding practices of industries and people and policies of “developed countries” that got us here in the first place. This is especially unnerving since our relationship with the environment around us shapes who we are in a range of ways. As well as shaping our own sense of self (who we believe ourselves to be), our immediate environment (aka where we live) can impact our moods and emotions, how we think, the decisions that we make, and how we behave. So impacting our environment (and believing we can impact our environment in a meaningful way) is actually relevant to us. Not everyone has the opportunity to move to a different place, but we can all make small changes to the environment that we find ourselves in, as well as small shifts in the way we engage with the community and spaces around us, that have the potential to produce sustainable benefits for both individuals and the environment.1
Issues in our society like a lack of community, communication, and connection, as well as having insufficient understanding of sustainability and holding the belief that our effort wouldn’t make any real difference, all contribute to the deteriorating state of the environment as well as to our quality of life. It may seem like a naive oversimplification to suggest that all of these issues can be addressed by changing our relationship with soil and plants. But with a bit more knowledge, it would seem to make perfect sense. Soil is very important to our life. Understanding why that is and how we can have some input into improving it, benefits us both physically (through our health) and emotionally (through seeing that we can have this kind of impact). But first off, it is probably helpful to understand, why is soil so important?
Soil is not just chemically laden dirt. Healthy soil teems with life: earthworms, insects, fungi, and other microbes and creatures. There are more living organisms in a handful of soil than there are people on the planet. Many of these creatures form symbiotic relationships with each other and with plants.2. Together they help decompose plant and animal debris which improves nutrient cycling and availability (in particular, nitrogen for nutrient-rich food). They also improve soil porosity (impacting water infiltration and retention when it rains) and bind together soil particles into aggregate clumps that help hold the soil in place and reduce soil erosion.3
It is tremendously important to enrich the soil and to have a wide variety of plant life replete with dense root systems helping to hold the soil in place. Nutrient-depleted soil has dangerous consequences for the environment, climate, and food. In terms of food, this is especially deceiving when we can maintain the quantity and modify the size and appearance of food to appear “healthy”, hiding the vastly degraded nutritional value of what is currently produced. 4
Additionally, soil erosion has dangerous consequences contributing to greenhouse gas emissions by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, facilitating climate change. Not to mention, eroded soil (meaning soil with insufficient microbes and nutrients to absorb or filter water) can often contaminate bodies of water. In addition, any fertilizers and chemicals in it simply get washed away along with the nutrient-depleted ‘dirt’ it has become. It is not difficult to see how this run-off of dirt and chemicals can damage fragile water ecosystems and compromise water quality. It also depletes the dissolved oxygen in water bodies, affecting the marine animals that depend on that oxygen for survival.
Soil provides a host of crucial services for both people and the planet. Soil puts food on our plates, purifies our water, protects us against flooding, and combats drought.
With all of this focus on soil, you’ve probably guessed where this is going… yep, gardening. Small actions such as individual gardening can contribute to addressing larger issues like food scarcity. By adopting easy and free regenerative planting practices in pretty much any small or large, vertical or horizontal, indoor or outrdoor area you can access, you will be part of improving soil health, growing your self-sustainability, giving yourself healthier food while spending less money, and …yes, promoting community food security.. Ugh…but I already know all this and of course I totally agree…. But I do not have space for a garden/do not know the first thing about gardening/do not have time or money for this/and most of all do not have the foggiest idea of how to get started in any space I have or have access to.
This is where connecting and communicating comes in. Growing things takes time and patience and learning and listening and observing,The value of growing things extends far beyond the produce you get, Personal and community gardens offer you the chance to educate and connect yourself with nature and with others with experience and or interest in doing the same, they empower you with the capacity to visibly reduce your carbon footprint, and they allow you to create a resilient food system for you and those around you in a way that suits you and that you can tangibly see and feel. While your individual efforts may not eliminate food scarcity problems worldwide, they do form a part of the collective mission of trying to combat this issue.
Improving soil health by adding carbon back into the soil (known as carbon sequestering) is one of the best ways to combat climate change and ANYONE can do it – you don’t even have to be a large corporation or a city or a nation to have a large impact. 5 A small note about carbon- we come to think that it’s possibly a negative substance since we hear so much about how harmful it is to us in the atmosphere. But we also know that carbon is at the very core of every living being- it’s what we’re made of. Carbon is especially helpful to the earth and to us in several forms – just not as C02 in the atmosphere. Carbon is especially great at storing all of the nutrients that microbes in the soil need to flourish. So, getting carbon back into the soil is super important. There are a number of ways to get carbon back into the soil and improve soil health.
Some easy ways to do that are by:
Keeping the soil covered (with plants or organic mulch)
Leaving Soil Alone (no rototilling or digging – stay lazy!)
Growing different kinds of plants… there are all kinds of “companion plants” that work well together and can stave off animal or insect infiltration
Avoid chemical/commercial fertilizers – as they kill the life in the soil and make for weaker soil (aka DIRT) Soil has life, dirt is dead.
Making compost and making healthy living soil that produces nutrient-rich plants and stores lots and lots of carbon! 6
Creating new soil takes longer than the average human life. We need to protect and conserve soil – it is a living resource and it is finite. Actively Improving soil health is something we can all easily, actively do as individuals…it is a small way you can impact climate change and help out the earth, and ourselves in the process.
- Waddington, Elizabeth. “Where We Live Affects Who We Are.” Treehugger, 19 Jan. 2023, www.treehugger.com/where-live-affects-who-are-7095727.
- “How Regenerative Agriculture Helps Address Climate Change – Center for Regenerative Agriculture and Resilient Systems.” Chico State, www.csuchico.edu/regenerativeagriculture/blog/how-reg-ag-addresses-climate-change.shtml.
- “Why Soil Matters.” ClientEarth, 18 Nov. 2022, www.clientearth.org/latest/latest-updates/news/why-soil-matters.
- Oatman, Maddie. “Could Paying Farmers to Store Carbon Help the Climate and Save Farms?” Mother Jones, www.motherjones.com/environment/2020/07/indigo-agriculture-carbon-farming-sequestration-agriculture-climate-change-emissions-soil-health.
- Putting Carbon Back in Your Soil – UC Marin Master Gardeners. marinmg.ucanr.edu/BASICS/SOIL_813/Putting_Carbon_Back_Into_Your_Soil.
- Charlotte. “The Green Revolution: Embracing Urban Gardening for Sustainable Living” Fine Homes and Living, 17 July 2023 https://www.finehomesandliving.com/featured/the-green-revolution-embracing-urban-gardening-for-sustainable-living/