In this course we explore the tools and techniques used in permaculture to create healthy soil for growing resilient and nutrient dense plants, the different properties of soil and some common issues associated with soil health in agriculture. In each of these topics the following aspects are covered:
The course is heavily dependent upon online involvement in forums - where you share reflections upon the content explored within a collaborative learning environment. On completion of the course you will submit a design task which describes a management practice that works alongside soil biology for creating health soil that would grow nutrient dense plants.
This course can be enrolled in separately or be included within a more comprehensive Permaculture Design Certificate - that explores the application of a wide range of design principles and methodologies to creating regenerative foodscapes.
The following topics are covered:
- Creating Compost: Common methods to make compost - including hot compost, worm farms, blackfly farms and bokashie.
- Compost teas: How to test for nutrient deficiencies in plants and soils and create appropriate aerobic, pro-biotic sprays and apply them as broadacre foliar sprays.
- Biochar: How to create and inoculate biochar to improve soil health.
- Physical Properties: Explores the composition of soils and how to measure that composition and the impact of different soil types on drainage, porosity, humidity and nutrient availability.
- Chemical Properties: An investigation into important soil nutrients and their availability in soils, measuring soil pH and its importance, how the cation exchange capacity of soils impact nutrient availability and the influence of salinity on soils.
- Biological Properties: A detailed exploration of the processes associated with different organisms found in soils and how they contribute to building a healthy soil.
- Managing Water: Explores the impact of drainage of land in NZ.
- Compaction: Explore the impact of soil cultivation and farming on compaction of soils.
- Erosion: Explores the impact deforestation and conversion to farmland has had in NZ.
Soil can be created within permaculture farms by using a wide range of techniques including holistic grazing, adding compost and compost teas, using biochar, favouring perennial crops, avoiding tilling soil and practising crop rotation and crop residue mulching. These practices minimize biota disturbance and erosion losses while incorporating carbon rich amendments and retaining the biomass of roots and shoots, all of which contribute to building organic matter in soil and feeding a thriving soil community.
Building Soil in Permaculture
Skilled gardeners pay attention to the soil, and they create a crumbly texture by adding plenty of organic matter. Building soils is a priority. In gardens, this comes from earth-shaping, composting, and mulching, but over large areas, there is more need to work with nature. Soils can be reconditioned by ripping lines to open soils to air and water. The lines should be planted with pioneer species to snuff out weeds, and later, the area should either be chopped, leaving the organic material on the ground, or quickly grazed, with the manure providing nutrients. Repeating this process over a year will create spongy, rich soil. Once the soil has been rehabilitated, practices have to be appropriate, minimizing cultivation, using perennial crops and trees, and cycling livestock through the air so that it is beneficial rather than destructive. Then, we have moved into a permanent and productive system.
A primary aim of permaculture designs must be to establish thriving soil ecosystems which are fed a rich and diverse source of organic matter to restore soil fertility and function.
Soil is created through life processes working upon minuet sediments, mixing those sediments with organic matter and sticking them together with biological slimes to create soil aggregates that improve air and water circulation and allow nutrients to be stored. If the soil habitat is sheltered by plants, and receives a regular source of organic matter to be broken down by decomposers, it provides a habitat in which life can flourish. The healthy soil ecosystem has a diverse range of life from decomposers that break down organic matter and supply these nutrients to the soil in their faeces, bacteria that have a diverse range of roles recycling soil nutrients and fungi that create a complex network in the soil. It is our role as regenerative farming engineers to create diverse and abundant habitats which will provide the full range of resources to support fulfilling lives while nurturing our habitat and soil for future generations.
An Introduction to Soil
Water and air are important components of soil for plants and other organisms that live in the soil. Water in the soil is absorbed by plant roots and creates a humid environment which is important for many soil organisms to survive in. Soil organisms and plant roots also require oxygen from the air in soil to respire and create energy for cellular processes.
Organic matter in the soil (or hummus) builds up from the decomposition of dead plants and animals. Before being decomposed, this provides a food source to support a diverse ecosystem of life within the soil. When organic matter is decomposed it helps absorb water, create extra air space and balance atmospheric carbon. A growing appreciation is emerging that building soil carbon (by increasing organic matter in soil) may be the best solution to combat rising atmospheric carbon associated with global warming. With the added benefit of improving soil properties to support agricultural production.
Soil is a complex habitat, teaming with life. The sediments that make up that habitat have their origins from the erosion of local rocks and create sand, silts and clays that are mixed with organic matter from the decomposition of living things and modified by the slime of living creatures to create soil aggregates that change the water holding, water draining, air circulation and nutrient holding properties of the soil. With the appropriate combination of shelter, plants to provide sugars through photosynthesis and sources of organic matter for decomposes, the soil can support a thriving and diverse food web that maintains a steady recycling of nutrients in the soil to provide sustainable growth of productive crops.
It is vitally important to grow crops in mineral and nutrient dense soils, for their own health and to transfer those essential nutrients to us when we consume them. Never in history have we been exposed to a diet so high in nutrient deficient food. There is an epidemic in western cultures where people are simultaneously obese and malnourished due to intensive agricultural production using chemical fertilizers that do not have all of these essential minerals we need grown in mineral impoverished soils.