Practical Permaculture ~ Soil

Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden

In nature nothing exists alone.”
~ Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

Young Plant Stock Photo By amenic181 from
Young Plant Stock Photo By amenic181 from

As I posted in my other blog, I don’t want to remember war nor encourage the continuity of a culture that celebrates patriotism and makes “heroes” from those who were, in any case, victims of a flawed system…

I dream a world where heroes are those who protect and celebrate what gives life. Today, I celebrate and remember the soil and what it means for all of us: the essence of life and death, the eternal cycle.


The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
~ John Muir

Walking on the coast
Walking on the coast

Barefoot in the garden, I feel the soil under my feet: layers after layers of autumn leaves, small pieces of rock powder threw here by northern and ocean winds, dust from faraway planets, meteors and stars, particles that once belonged to your skin have flown here as mine went so far as a Tibetan monastery.

I crouch and collect a small worm here, a beetle there: if I dare to dig into it, I’ll see the mycorrhizae network that feeds to and from these trees’ roots…under the clover I can find the Rhizobium bacteria inside those swelling root nodules of the plant’s root: full of ready-to-take nitrogen in a form other plants can now “digest”…

I can’t see with my clumsy eyes, but beyond these obvious beings there are millions of microorganisms and relationships I cannot even start to fathom…the certainty that all what I am and ever was will end up here soothes my soul: I’ll come back, I whisper to the worm while setting it free back again to the soil. The little creature seems to hear me as it twists towards me and I smile: all my wishes and despairs will mix with this dirt and you, all of you, those I loved so much and those I don’t will be there along with me.

Making soil

Mulched soil
Mulched soil

What we call “soil” is a mixture of minerals, organic matter, gases, liquids, and millions of small and even microscopic organisms…it is the product of millions of years of interactions of climate and parent materials (mostly, rocks) and is constantly moving and changing: any given soil profile may take hundreds of years to be established.

While we cannot “make” soil, we can certainly help nature in its ongoing work.

Today we went to pick up autumn leaves from public spaces (there are not enough in our yard and almost none in our community garden) to make leafmould: I made some last year but it’s now gone, so we need more. I checked on my compost and the worms from the small worm factory in our kitchen…I also collected pebbles and stones (a favourite pastime of mine: stealing pebbles whenever I go to the beach or a river and bringing them home)…the cardboard pile and the shredded paper are full…I have all I need.

Some soil building tips

  • Minimize working in your garden when it is too wet or too dry: in both cases you are destroying soil structure (the porosity it needs so the water, air and nutrients can circulate effectively and become available to the plants)


  • Avoid tilling and, in general, using any tools: you’ll kill the good organisms that are helping you and you may cut mycorrhizae and destroy root hairs necessary to the plants for nutrient intake


  • When harvesting, take only what you need and leave the roots in. Next spring, if you want, you can turn them or just leave them there and plant on the top


  • Never leave the soil bare: there is no such a thing in nature except on deserts. Bare soil will be eroded faster and attracts weeds


  • Make leafmould: it is easy and free. You just need some bags and leave the leaves inside for at least one year (more is better)…then use them as mulch in the next fall or right after planting to cover and protect the soil


  • Add humus to your soil: humus can be “made” if you do vermicomposting (composting with worms). It is really easy and the product is gold! Good humus increases the soil capacity of promoting plant growth because it increases soil structure and through something called colloids, nutrients can be “stuck” and taken easily by plants’ roots


  • Compost: composting is also very easy and provides you with rich “soil” you can add to containers and beds or just your yard (better if you do this during the fall but if the compost is already well done, it can also be used in spring)


  • Use legumes to cover your soil or as companion plants: legumes attract a beneficial bacteria that colonizes the roots and converts nitrogen so plants can take it…


  • Do not use pesticides or fungicides of any kind: they destroy much more than what the label says


  • Grow patches of Comfrey, Stinging Nettle, Yarrow, Valerian, Chives, Alfalfa, Watercress, Dandelion, Borage, Vetches, Chamomile, etc and use them as mulch or add them to your compost (their roots of these and many other plants called in Permaculture “dynamic accumulators” have the capacity to dig deeper and acquire minerals not easily accessible to other plants such as annual vegetables that usually have shallow roots)…these plants are also edible, medicinal or good for teas and most are perennial, hardy and don’t need much care.


  • If you don’t plan to grow anything over the winter, then plant cover crops or cover your soil with a sheet of much or lasagna mulching


  • Save cardboard from paper toilet and small boxes with no ink on them: you can then cut them in strips and either feed them to your worms or to your compost. If you are making a lasagna compost sheet for your garden, use the strips as the “carbon” layer


  • Use permanent beds and paths: this allows you to have good structured soil and walk only through the paths to avoid compaction


  • Save all your eggshells and when you have enough, bake them and smash them to make eggshell powder and add this to your vegetable garden


  • Add human urine to your compost pile or garden (not during the growing season!)


But the best you can do for your soil (and life in this planet) is going out: go a forest, a beach, a river, a lake and observe the soil…touch it…smell it…feel it

It is your home


Saturday in VanDusen Gardens - Soil Class
Saturday in VanDusen Gardens – Soil Class

Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.”
~ Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

It is not half so important to know as to feel.”
~ Rachel Carson

Some resources to dig further:

Soil Science Society of America:

Royal Horticultural Society on leafmould and composting:

2 Comments on “Practical Permaculture ~ Soil

  1. Thank you for answering questions that were on my mind as I readied my garden for winter! The soil in my yard was depleted by years of neglect. For the past few years, I have been digging up lawn and invasive plant cover that kept the soil from breathing or allowing water to even penetrate below their enmeshed root systems. Each year, I have added “yards” of new soil and compost. This year, the crab apple tree that was dying when I moved in sprouted new branches and a bumper crop of little apples – and the reseeded cosmos in some places grew woody stems to support plants that were over 7 feet high. I didn’t clear the beds this year, and gathered leaves to cover some of the gardens for the winter – it just made sense. I am so grateful to know these were the right decisions!


    • Thanks Carol for your words…and happy to know my post have something practical in them (I have to force myself to post more practical stuff!)…have you tried building the soil on the top of your weeds and plants you don’t want? I did that in my garden: add a layer of cardboard or newspapers to the area you want to cover(do not even worry about weeding or digging and tilling hurts the soil), then add compost and leaves and on the top you can finish with some topsoil…if possible, do this at the beginning of the Fall season so there is some consistence by the Spring, but better if you can leave this pile to rest for two years…if you can’t, just start planting on the top of this and allow the plants to do their job: in a few years you’ll have rich soil where there were weeds and bad soil…better if you can create a guild, so plants help each other and you are constantly mulching and adding compost.

      Liked by 1 person

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