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Bringing Life to Your Soil

by Peter Rutherford
Zucchini crop

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"The Nation that destroys its Soil, destroys itself" - Franklin D Roosevelt
(1882 - 1945)

The following discussion paper was written by Australian ecologist Peter
Rutherford of Earth Solutions. Note book list (references) below.


Soils in Crisis

It is estimated that over one third of all useable land worldwide has been
seriously degraded in the last 100 years by unsustainable farming practices.

In 1999 it was estimated that over 1500 acres of land are becoming desert
every hour, every day, worldwide, largely because of the destruction of
upwind forests for farming and grazing enterprises. (Hartmann, 1999)

Over 300 tons of productive topsoil are lost worldwide every minute, from
accelerated erosion, related to destructive recent agricultural practices
(since 1940's).



ancient Hebrew and is root of the word Earth.

ALIVENESS - The Importance of living things in our soils

"The soil is virtually a living organism. It is not just a bunch of mineral
particles with bugs walking through them. It is a mass of organic, living
material in an inorganic matrix. It is dynamic. It is full of life. And it
does not produce anything (healthy and vital) for human beings unless it is
sustained in that living condition." EO Wilson (1993)

Soils are made of a mineral component and the organic matter component.

These begin as rocks which gradually break down into smaller and smaller
particles (ie sand to silt to clay). Clay particles are defined as mineral
particles having a diameter of < 0.002mm. These minute particles are given
the name 'Clay Colloids'. Clay colloids have a very symmetrical, crystal
like shape with a fairly flat, small surface area.

Organic Matter - (Any plant or animal tissue)
All plant and animal tissue (other than when burnt) is decomposed (ie broken
down) by soil microbes and macrobes into smaller and smaller particles.
These decomposing particles of organic matter eventually become HUMUS. Humus
particles are defined as organic particles having a diameter of < 0 002mm.
These minute particles are given the name 'Humus Colloids'. Humus colloids
have a very irregular, anemone like shape with a very large surface area.

Both the clay and humus colloids have special qualities. They have an
electric charge (mostly negative) all over their surface. This mostly
negative charge allows these colloids to attract and hold large numbers of
positively charged nutrient ions, to their surface. e.g. positive ions such
as Ca, Mg, Na, K etc.

Some negative ions such as N03, P03 etc, are also attracted to the few areas
of positive charge on the colloid surface but these sites are dramatically
fewer in number than the areas of negative charge on the colloid surface.
This explains why soils low in organic matter have a greater need for
addition of Nitrogen and Phosphorous.

BUT - The Humus colloids are the key. Each humus colloid has a much bigger
surface area than each clay colloid, even though they are about the same
size in diameter. It is estimated that each humus colloid can attract and
hold 10 to 100 times more plant nutrients than each clay colloid.

This means that even in periods of very heavy rainfall, soils with high
levels of humus will 'hold' onto the plant nutrient ions and they will not
be 'leached' out of the soil.

This also means that any synthetic fertilisers added to soils with high
levels of humus will be stored more efficiently in the soil and will give
much greater overall economic benefit to the farmer.

Nutrients stored in the soil by humus colloids are available in greater or
lesser amounts as determined by plant growth, and daily and seasonal

Colloids also form gels, which hold soil water reserves.

The importance of the rate of decomposition of organic matter in soils
The productivity of a soil is in direct proportion to the number, activity
and balance of the soil microorganisms. One teaspoon of rich organic soil or
compost can contain up to 4 to 5 billion microbes wrote Stanley Wedberg of
the University of Connecticut.

"The plant always eats at the second sitting, the plant only gets what the
microbes give it. Feed the soil, Not the Plants!" - Professor William
Albrecht. (WALTERS - 1979)

Biologists such as Orrie Loucks and soil pathologist Elaine Ingham from Ohio
State University, suggest that the ultimate regulator of all ecosystems is

Processes that release nutrients back into the ecosystem for future
production are what enable those ecosystems to function.

"The breakdown of organic matter," Loucks says, "and the release of the
nutrients that are in that organic matter are systems that are much more
complex than photosynthesis. Decay is more complex than photosynthesis
because it involves the cooperation of thousands of species of living
organisms, from insects to worms, fungi and bacteria. These species are very
sensitive to factors like toxic chemicals, small changes in soil moisture
and temperature, and any change in the mix of species that cooperate to
break down the organic matter. If anything happens to disrupt the process of
decay, then nutrient supplies are curtailed or become unavailable to the
next season's crop of plants." (Suzuki 1999).

Use of Synthetic Chemicals
'Toxic rescue' chemistry, (i.e. pesticides, herbicides, insecticides,
fungicides,) try to salvage unbalanced, unnatural farm ecosystems. The
combination of these toxic chemicals and 'imbalanced' plants and animals
leads to 'food' of questionable value for humans.

Pesticide poisoning affects 48 people per minute, some 25 million every year

Pesticides have not meant fewer crops lost to insects. We are losing 20%
more of our crops to insects today than in 1945.

Ninety-nine per cent of all USA mothers breast milk in 1999 contains
detectable levels of DDT. It could not be sold off the shelf in

The rate of childhood cancer has skyrocketed since 1970 when we were using
far less than half the pesticides we are using now. Childhood cancer has now
become the second leading cause of childhood deaths in the USA (behind

In Australia over 440 different pesticides are routinely used. There is
ample evidence that many of these toxic substances are having either a quick
or a slow poisoning effect on human beings. (Short 1994)

Despite our arsenal of powerful toxins, most agricultural & horticultural
pests are still controlled by natural enemies like spiders, wasps, birds and
other predators that live adjacent to or in the fields. In forty years of
intense pesticide use we have not eradicated a single pest, and we actually
have more problems with them than when we started. (Suzuki 1999)

The cost of synthetic chemicals (both fertilisers and pesticides) will
continue to increase dramatically, as the price of oil increases.

Aliveness Summary: It is clear beyond any shadow of doubt that alive, living
systems, are the key to long-term sustainability and productivity. The use
of any sort of recycled organics back to the soil will gradually restore
this vital living component.



Biodiversity is the HEART & STRENGTH of all Ecosystems!

The Simplistic NPK fertilization concept means malnutrition for plants,
animals and human beings. The application of this simplistic NPK concept
creates either a shortage or marked imbalance of plant nutrients. This
simplistic NPK approach also disregards the myriad of living organisms which
are responsible for balanced plant health and therefore animal and human

The initial results of this NPK, low diversity, soluble fertiliser approach
were spectacular. But as Ingham says, the reason that these monoculture,
chemical fertiliser, and pesticides combinations worked for a generation or
so is that nature had built up a reserve of Humus in the soil. So for the
last 40 to 60 years we have been slowly 'mining' out this reserve of Organic

NSW Dept of Agriculture Research indicates that more than 80 % of our
farming soils in Australia now have less than 1% organic matter. This is a
frightening situation when we realise that just 40 to 60 years ago, these
same soils had an average of 6-10% organic matter. This 90% decline also
represents a similar dramatic loss in the diversity of soil microbes and

"The productivity of a soil is in direct proportion to the number, activity
and balance of the soil microorganisms," wrote Stanley Wedberg of the
University of Connecticut.

Plants with access to a rich diversity of exchangeable soil nutrients,
(needed to develop proper fertility loads, structure and stabilized internal
hormone and enzyme potentials), provide their own protection against insect,
bacterial and fungal attack

Insects and disease are nature's predators. They are summoned when they are
needed, and they are repelled when they are not needed.

Diversity Summary: Diversity is the key to health and balance of all
ecosystems. We must try and consider how to restore and increase diversity
in all parts of the systems we are managing. This includes everything from
the soil microbes and macrobes, to the diversity of plants we manage, to the
diversity of insects, birds and larger creatures in our local systems. It is
clear beyond any shadow of doubt that diversity at all levels of living
systems, is a key to long-term sustainability and productivity. The use of
as diverse a range as possible of recycled organics back to the soil will
gradually restore this vital ecosystem diversity.


Soil aeration is critical to any productive plant system. Soils are
permeated by the gases in the air above them. (80% Nitrogen, 18% Oxygen, 2%

'Good' soil structure, which is the key to adequate soil aeration, depends
on the soil composition itself. The key component for improving soil
structure is organic matter.

Natural soils are always a mosaic of aerobic and anaerobic patches called
micro-sites, where either oxygen (aerobic) or ethylene (anaerobic) sites

Ethylene inhibits microbial activity. As the ethylene at an oxygen-exhausted
site diffuses out of the soil, oxygen floods back and re-activates the site.

It is important to realise however, that the 'flood' aerobic condition we
create in soils when ploughing can actually be detrimental to the 'natural'
aerobic/anaerobic balance. Ploughing speeds up the oxidation of humus, which
is then lost to atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Ploughing creates a net loss
of soil nutrients. (Mollison 1988)

Aeration Summary: Natural Aeration of soils is essential to quality and
productivity of yields. Natural Aeration and balanced gaseous exchange is
achieved through improvement of soil structure. Adequate soil structure is
achieved by increasing the aliveness and diversity within all parts of the
managed ecosystem. Doing everything possible to increase Soil Organic Matter
levels must be the primary strategy to achieving this living balance.

Applying recycled organics to the soil will slowly restore the natural
soil-aeration system.


Moisture in all its many forms is the key to healthy vibrant, alive
ecosystems. All living things use and store moisture. We must think beyond
just 'water'.

Increasing soil organic matter leads to direct increases in porosity and
hydraulic conductivity

Crop losses in dry weather, or during mild cold snaps, are not so much the
result of drought and cold, as of nutrient deficiency

"Drought may be merely the soil situation in which we have no soil fertility
deep enough to feed the plants when they are compelled to have their roots
go deeper to get stored water". (Albrecht)

Plants will mostly choose to send their roots toward a clump of manure or
compost or decomposing mulch, rather then simply to a water source. Plant
roots can carry their nutritional requirements with them as they tunnel
deeper, but starved plants run out of food when forced to hunt for water.

Plant roots are the pumping system to ensure that water is moved efficiently
and constantly from ground to air. Forest and woodlots ensure that water
tables do not come too close to the surface and they also ensure a regular
amount of water vapour is maintained in the air. This humidity is essential
to plant health and growth.

NO Plant has EVER died of too much water!! What plants can die from is a
lack of oxygen in the water surrounding their roots. This becomes very
evident when we observe hydroponic systems where plant roots can be floating
in water 24 hours a day - BUT the water is being continually oxygenated!

Moisture Summary: Every living thing relies on moisture in some form, for
its survival. The amount of moisture stored within the entire farm ecosystem
is what is important, not just liquid water. Organic matter levels in the
soil are a key to ensuring adequate moisture levels within the entire

Doing everything possible to increase soil organic matter levels must be the
primary strategy to achieving this moisture balance.

Applying Recycled Organics back to the soil will gradually restore the
Natural Moisture Balance within the system


The detailed sun, soil, plant relationships from differing viewpoints
The complex relationship between sunlight, the soil ecosystem and plants
should be deeply considered in any plant management decisions.

Consider the following scenarios:

Sun, soil, plant relationship in high organic matter (OM) soils using NO
synthetic ferts

Sun, soil, plant relationships in high OM soils with use of synthetic ferts

Sun, soil, plant relationships in low OM soils with use of synthetic ferts

Cell Theory of Plants
In 'Natural' soils which have sustainable levels of organic matter and
humus, the balance of taking in water and taking in nutrients is complex. It
is related to factors such as: sunlight intensity, ambient temperature, soil
temperature, daylength, microbial activity in the soil, etc.

Now, water transpires most of the time through plants, but nutrients (salts)
are 'gathered' by the plant, via cation exchange from the electric surface
of the humus colloids. The plant only plucks off these nutrients when it
needs them, in response to factors mentioned above, and also in response to
the stage of growth of the plant.

In a situation where humus levels are low, synthetic salts, or fertilizers
as we call them, remain dissolved in the soil water and are thus taken in
with the plant's water, whether the plant needs these nutrient salts or not!

This increased flow of 'salts' into the plant then increases the amount of
water the plant must take in via osmosis. The cells inside plants forced
with salts, and thus more water, begin to expand (like a balloon!). The cell
walls become stretched and thinner. These thinner walls are easier for
piercing insects such as aphids, thrip, etc, to attack thus making the plant
more vulnerable to insect damage.

By applying an organic matter of high diversity, such as Recycled Organics
(RO), a diverse range of nutrients, micro nutrients and enzymes is assured.
These nutrients will be stored on the surface of the humus colloids and be
available when plants need them. This high diversity RO will also ensure
high diversity of microbes working in the soil thus increasing the potential
of the plant to be more disease and insect resistant

Final Summary
Current dialogue about designing a network of pathways leading to practical
sustainability and elimination of the use of biocides and synthetic
fertilisers is exciting, fascinating and complex.

Many plants are beyond the fringe of their native ecosystems. For many
exotic and unusual plants, it is difficult for some people to entertain the
idea that biocides will ever be able to be eliminated.

It may be the case that certain species, in certain seasons, in certain
years will still need to be 'supported' with biocide use BUT a key question
to be continually asking is:

"What is our overall and deepest responsibility in the current dangerous
ecological situation?"

I believe it is for every one of us, in every capacity we can, to show
immediate, genuine and strong leadership in the fields of inquiry, research,
and practical application, of sustainable, organic, management of plant
systems. This leadership should be made as public as possible and will drive
a very very strong message into every corner of the horticulture industry,
that it is time NOW, to eliminate the excess biocide and nutrient load on
all our ecosystems!

This discussion paper is based on first principles thinking. The notion that
the soil is the organism that we as horticulturists are feeding is a key
principle. Are we feeding plants or are we feeding the soil, which then
feeds the plants?

The principles of Aliveness, Diversity, Aeration, & Moisture are an attempt
to specify 'key stepping stones' on the pathway to sustainable organic

This paper may hopefully assist to increase the depth of dialogue and
action, relating to soil, plant, and ecosystem, contamination and


Some Discussion Questions to Explore
What is the level of knowledge and deep understanding of 'Living Soils
Principles' ?

What education programs are currently in place for the general public and
also, for the staff, of organizations responsible for education programs?

Are we leading and educating by example? Can more be done?

Can we become centres for researching new ways of gardening/horticulture
using organic and sustainable techniques?

This information must be shared as immediately as possible between all of

What individuals and groups from outside your staff group could be involved
in such research?

What outreach network do you have for dissemination of new ideas and

What is your role in genuine community education?

See book list/references below


Presented at the Organics 2001 Conference, May 18-20 2001, Ashburton, NZ
Peter Rutherford
"Earth Solutions"

BIOCYCLE Staff (1991) - "The Art & Science of Composting",The JG Press,
Pennsylvania, USA

CSIRO, Soil Series (1978) - 1. "Composting" 2. "Earthworms for Gardeners and

CAMPBELL Stu (1990) - "Let It Rot", Storey Communications, USA

CARSON Rachel (1962) - "Silent Spring", Penguin Books, Australia

DEANS Esther (1981) - "Growing Without Digging", Harper & Row (Australasia
Pty Ltd), Sydney, Australia

FRENCH Jacki (1988) - "The Organic Garden Doctor", Angus & Robertson,

FRENCH Jacki (1996) - "The Earth Gardener's Companion", Earth Garden Books,
Trentham, Victoria, Australia

FUKUOKA Masanobu (1985) - "The Natural Way Of Farming", Japan Publications
Inc, Tokyo & New York

GIONO Jean (1985) - "The Man Who Planted Trees", Chelsea Green Publishing,
Vermont, USA

HARTMANN Thom (1999) - "The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight", Bantam Books,

HAWKEN Paul (1993) - "The Ecology of Commerce", Harper Collins, NY

KENTON, Brandon (1987) - "Quantum Carrot", Rebury Press, London

LOW Tim (1985) - "Wild Herbs of Aust & NZ)", Angus & Robertson, Australia

MOLLISON Bill (1988) - "Permaculture - 'A Designers Manual", Tagari
Publications, Tyalgum, Australia

MURPHY David (1993) - "Earthworms in Australia", Highland House, Melb,

ROADS Michael (1989) - "The Natural Magic of Mulch", Greenhouse Publications
- Victoria, Australia

RUTHERFORD Peter & Lourie D (1995) - "The Complete Guide to Compost",
(Companion Guide to Video)

RUTHERFORD Peter & LAMONDA Mary Lou (1997) - "The Australian Compost & Worm
Book", Apollo Books, Sydney, Australia

SHORT Kate (199) - "Quick Poison, Slow Poison", Envirobook. Sydney,

SMITH Keith (1990) - "The Backyard Organic Garden", Lothian, Melb, Australia

STEINER, Rudolf (1984) - "Agriculture", Rudolf Steiner Press, London

SUZUKI, David (1997) - "The Sacred Balance", Allen & Unwin, St Leonards,

SUZUKI, David (1999) - "Naked Ape to Superspecies", Allen & Unwin, St
Leonards, Sydney

TALBOT Michael (1991) - "The Holographic Universe", Harper Collins, New York

TOMKINS P. & BIRD C (1989) - "Secrets of The Soil", ., Arkana Press

WALTERS Charles Jr & FENZAU CJ (1979) - "An Acres USA Primer", , Pub - Acres
USA, Missouri

WILSON E.O. (1993) - "The Diversity of Life", Penguin, London 


The following advertisements are not placed by Organic Pathways and are not necessarily organic