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extracting from it,” he adds. “Keep in mind that 80% of their nutrition comes from the air. And the roots need air below ground to live. That’s often overlooked. “We think of plants as being good

enough at producing for us that we can feed them once a year,” he says. “Why would anyone believe that? Soil can undergo rap- id changes within 1 foot from an edge zone, and that host soil has a memory that can ex- tend out 60 feet, from the edge, even when it’s been badly degraded. It may eventually remember what it was and come back, but only as long as there’s a point of reference.” New research shows that soil life is far

more sensitive to minor climate variations than previously known. In this “doom and boom” cycle, microbes can quickly “shut down” in times of stress, and remain dor- mant for decades, or explode with activ- ity when conditions are right. What will happen as global climate changes? Will the life or death of soils save us or speed us toward new, unpleasant extremes? Sci- entists aren’t sure yet. The science is too complex, too new. What we do know is that life on Earth

probably began with the tiny bacteria found in soils, and that they may account for half of the “living protoplasm” on the planet. As Baskin puts it, “the bacteria in an acre of soil can easily outweigh the cow or two grazing above them.” Whatever humans do to the Earth,

chances are good that bacteria will survive to rebuild. The question is whether we will become partners and benefi ciaries of the gift of soil, or, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet so succinctly put it, “food for worms.” GB


Here are 10 things we were surprised to learn about soil and plant ecology:

> Dirt Remembers. Soils may have long term “memory.” If left undisturbed long enough, they often return to a previous state.

> Roots Need Air. Plants need under- ground air. Plants will only grow in soils that are porous enough to allow air to enter. Roots won’t venture into an airless, compacted zone.

> Modern Inefficiency. In modern agriculture, 10 to 11 calories of fossil fuel are used to create just 1 calorie of food.

> Wobbly Tests. Soil pH often changes by as much as 2 points in just 24 hours. It’s not static.

> The Right Light. Indoor plants don’t necessarily want full- spectrum lighting. They tend to like red and blue lights instead.

> Pollution Test. Polluted water will not freeze into a coherent snowflake. The flake is “broken,” a telltale sign of nature’s disruption.

> Weed Wisdom. Observing which weeds grow is a highly efficient way of indentifying what soils are lacking.


Weeds and Why They Grow, Jay McCaman

Topsoil and Civilization, Carter and Dale

The Nature and Properties of Soil, Ray Weil

Under Ground, Yvonne Baskin

> Magnetic Magic. Treating water with magnets may reduce scale buildup in pipes and make suspended elements more available to plants.

> Plants Listen. It’s easy to discount people who talk to plants as crazy. But tests have shown that plants respond to certain sound frequencies. They especially like Vivaldi. Seriously.

> Hello Strangers. At present, soil scientists have identified only about 5% of the living creatures in key groups of soils.

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