The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Soil mixers

Crawdad chimneyIf I asked 100 gardeners what mixes soil if you don't bring in your plow, at least 99 of them would probably shout out "Earthworms!"  And while it's true that earthworms are vigorous soil mixers, Life in the Soil makes it clear that lots of other organisms, large and small, are also pulling their weight.

Sure, earthworms can eat their way ten feet deep into the soil, and they add calcium to everything that passes through their gut, resulting in very rich castings.  But did you know that areas with strong crayfish populations can see about a ton of subsoil brought up to the surface through the action of these crustaceans alone?  Subsoil often contains minerals that have leached out of the topsoil, so it's especially handy to elevate this deep earth to where plants can easily reach it.  Other invertebrates that move lots of earth long distances include ants and termites, both of which also carry plant matter underground and produce pockets of rich soil around their nests.

Then there are the looseners.  Even though we're not keen on Japanese beetles and June bugs, I have to admit that their grubs improve soil structure and fertility as they travel up and Miner beedown in the soil.  Ground-nesting bees and wasps like sweat bees, miner bees, and digger wasps all excavate burrows for their larvae to live in, and dung beetles fill their underground dens with rich balls of excrement.  And that's not even counting the burrowing snakes, lizards, and mammals who move even more earth around.

People email me quite often to ask how topdressed compost can make its way deeper into soil if we don't till, and how no-till soil can become light and fluffy.  Once they realize the rich diversity of life in no-till gardens, though, their question answers itself.  Don't plow, and the wildlife will do your job for you.

The Weekend Homesteader includes a primer on how to manage a no-till garden.

This post is part of our Life in the Soil lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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