When we speak of agriculture we naturally think of tilling the soil, yet we have known for a long time that tilling results in soil loss and therefore is not a sustainable form of agriculture. Though organic agriculture is purposed towards sustainability it is mired in the futile attempt to prevent soil loss while still tilling the soil. Agriculture without tilling is now being looked at but surface tilling (cultivation) is deemed necessary for weed control. This is not true. Cultivation keeps a constant supply of weed seeds close to the light needed for sprouting. In my garden beds where I have avoided disturbing even the surface of the soil for several years the weed situation has become quite manageable, though there continues to be the encroachment of grass from the grass paths. This “problem” could be exploited by permitting the narrowing of the garden beds and a widening of the paths for a time, since the encroaching grass adds root organic matter.
Soil compaction for us no-till gardeners takes a bit more ingenuity to address effectively. More attention needs to be given to maintaining tilth. Tilth is critical, even at the very surface of the soil, as it helps the soil absorb water to be stored deep in the ground and accessed via capillary action. In my experience watering has been reduced a great deal since I quit tilling and cultivating. With a deep mulch I have not had to water at all, other than the initial watering in of certain plants like tomatoes and squash. My mulch material is limited so I have only one garden bed under deep mulch. Since I don’t need a heavy mulch for weed control I mulch only enough to keep the ground shaded and in a water-absorbable condition. Using cover crops is my way of maintaining the organic matter in the soil, with my main cover crop season being during the winter, so I can free up more beds for garden crops in the long summer days.
Nature has many ways of relieving soil compaction, some commonly known but some not so well known. For example anaerobic bacteria obtain oxygen directly from the organic matter it decomposes, and even oxygen locked into clay particles. This oxygen is released into the soil when the anaerobic bacteria die, promoting aerobic activity.
In general our knowledge of soil is still in the beginning stage. One reason for this is that little can be learned when studying microbes apart from their environment. The vast majority of microbe species cannot live in a Petri dish, which is why only a few microbes have been studied or even known. What is being realized is that cooperation rules in the soil community, and this understanding could rightly be applied to the human community: we too will not survive as independent units of existence. There will always be more to learn about life in the soil community but we know that tilling has a disruptive effect in that soil community. And we know that stable humus is what gives the soil strength (backbone) and inherent fertility. The study of biodynamic agriculture is expanding and should now rightly be called bio-chemical-electromagnetic dynamics. With this expanded version we are on the cusp of learning more about restoring depleted soils and that it can be done much faster than previously thought.
I find it useful to look at industrial agriculture in general as it helps inform even the way I garden in my back yard. We have seen that cheap fossil fuels gave rise to the industrial revolution, which in turn gave rise to the globalization of the economy and the transporting of food crops long distances. I see a different relationship with Nature: a relationship of greater trust as we strive to adapt more to her ways and away from the present relationship of manipulation and exploitation. There will be a return to a more agrarian society with its typically low unemployment. There will be a move away from machine labor toward more hand labor. Plant diversity will replace monocultures. We will likely need to change our diet away from grains and meat toward vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, roots and vegetable oil – in other words the typical Stone-age (Paleolithic) diet. This does not mean going back to Stone Age living since we will be planting our food crops, not just gathering them!
Though cooperation as mentioned will come to rule we know that such cooperation must come from within, from a changed disposition, born out of necessity and not mandated from without. Us soil lovers will no longer be considered weird. Soil will seem more precious than gold.