Wednesday, 30 July 2008

This Green and Fertile Land

A friend’s neighbour recently gave his garden a bit of a revamp, like you do from time to time. The new design has now left the garden mostly covered in slate chippings where there was once lawn and while I personally preferred it how it was, I can understand his choice. Lawns demand water, fertilizer and a lot of TLC if they’re to look half decent, whereas the slated area is very low-maintenance. There was one thing I had a problem with though; he removed and DUMPED a lot of top soil.

Good soil is actually a precious commodity. This beautiful planet of ours is actually losing fertile soil at a rate of somewhere between 10 and 20 times faster than its able to replenish itself. Think about that. For every square meter of top soil we dig over, up to 20 square meters are disappearing somewhere in the world - soil that is vital for the production of food. And then some people go and dump it amongst hardcore and other stuff where it won’t be of much use to us at all.

Soil takes a long time to develop into the kind of stuff that plants like to grow in. Weeds and other less fussy plants, insects and worms all need to do their bit by living in or near the soil, dying and then rotting down in it before the nutrients can develop enough for most food plants, whether food for us humans or for the wildlife share the planet with. And we’re not just talking ten, twenty or even a hundred years here - we talking tens of thousands of years just to make about 6 inches of good topsoil.

During the time it takes to develop decent soil, a lot gets washed away and the sun’s parching effect depletes it of nutrients, slowing down the process. In some parts of the world, soil just doesn’t get the chance to develop and although there’s plenty of unused ground around, it just isn’t able to support plant life.

Apparently, soil has been disappearing at an increased rate during the past 50 years, and there are no signs of it slowing down. This isn’t just through natural causes either - man has left his mark through hundreds of years of poor soil management and now we’re paying the price.

Greed has been the cause of much of the problem. We wanted as much as possible from as little as possible so mono-culture became ‘the thing’. Year after year, the same crops were planted on the same land - cotton, corn, tea, opium poppies, potatoes, etc - while we sat back and enjoyed the profits of the bounty. When the ground became so depleted that it no longer produced a decent yield, we simply moved on to other areas leaving the barren wasteland behind us and did the same thing all over again. What’s more - it’s still happening, only now we’re running out of ‘new areas’ to cultivate. Corn, especially, is still being mono-cultivated in order to produce animal feed and fuel (ethanol).

And then some people go and dump top soil!

It’s all very well and good to say “we don’t have a problem here - what’s the difference whether it’s under my lawn or on the landfill?” but the WORLD has a problem. If we don’t stop abusing our resources we WILL have a food crisis, and I don’t just mean food costing a few pence more in the shops either! There are enough starving people in this world as it is, mostly thanks to the greed of the prosperous, and without enough fertile land to support food production, the problem will only increase.

Sure, we can say “bung fertilizer on it”, but that’s too easy an answer. Natural fertilizers won’t be plentiful enough to improve the amount of soil we’d need and we just don’t know enough about the long-term use of chemical fertilizers (by long-term I mean longer than we’re able to test them for). What we do know is that the Mexican Gulf already has a ‘dead zone’ thanks to fertilizers being washed into it and anyway, chemical fertilizer’s made from natural gas, and that’s not going to last forever either.

My garden is full of clay and ‘builder’s rubble’, making it incredibly difficult to cultivate. I’d love to plant fruit and vegetables and lots of pretty, nectar rich flowers but to get it into the condition it’d need to be in first would mean far too much work for me. And top soil’s expensive.

I felt like crying when my friends told me about the ‘soil dumping’ episode. If only he'd 'chucked it' my way instead but I can only assume that he didn't know better.

Sharon J


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Gavin said...

Sharon you are so right. Here in my area we are lucky to have a couple of cm of natural topsoil on virgin land. Then to stuff it all up completely, the developers strip away any semblance of decent topsoil when they develop housing estates. What chance does a home gardener have when they remove the good stuff before the house is even built?

Catz said...

Good point Sharon what a waste! A friend of ours in a housing association new build is still filling up buckets with stones from his newly seeded lawn!

Anonymous said...

Oh Sharon, I wish I could send you a pile of poo! Goat poo makes great compost! I Grrr every time I see a tarmaced or paved yard, that sends water washing down to flood somewhere when it could be purifying the air and offering a home to countless insects etc.
Potatoes look good whetever - you must have green fingers.

Frugal Trenches said...

This is a great post! I've leared a lot!

Marelisa said...

I didn't know it took so long to create soil that grows plants. It's unbelievable the rate at which we're destroying the earth's resources.

Sharon J said...

@ Gavin. The same happens here when they put up new homes although some developers have started saving the topsoil and replacing it when they've finished. Hopefully they'll all do that one day.

@ Catz. I've been here for 7 years and still haven't managed to turn the ground into anything decent so I know how your friend feels.

@ Cherry Rolfe. You wouldn't believe the amount of dung, silt, gravel, compost, bags of top soil etc that we've dug into one part of the garden in order to make the soil more fertile but still it's a mess. Totally agree re paving and concrete.

Alas, the spuds are not mine :(

@ Frugal Trenches. I learned a lot while researching it too. Being curious about stuff has its advantages :)

@ Marelisa. Unbelievable but nevertheless true, unfortunately. At least the people who started doing the damage can be excused in that they didn't know better but what excuse do we have? None.

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