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Master Gardening: Soil, a precious commodity

It is miraculous that soil, arguably the most exquisite biological system on our planet, exists at all. If the earth was perfectly spherical, it would be entirely covered with water 1.5 miles deep. But here we are on terra firma, stewards of a substrate that supports more diversity than we can scarcely imagine.

While I am certain that I think about soil far more than the average person, we all have reasons to think about it more. Recently, soil made it into the news when we were alerted that the Conowingo Dam was nearly filled with sediment (soil) much sooner than originally expected. The reason given for alarm at this fact was that the Conowingo and other dams allow sediment in rivers to “settle out” therefore improving water quality in this case of the Chesapeake Bay. Perhaps the real problem is thinking of and referring to soil as sediment and treating it as a pollutant. Perhaps this attitude is more of a problem than a solution.

More: Master Gardening: Loving holly in all its forms

Our hierarchy of needs begins with physiological needs. Soil plays an important role in filtering water that we drink and providing the substrate necessary for plants to grow and provide food and oxygen. So our health and our very existence depends upon soil.

We have come a long way with improvements in our soil conservation practices. During the early days of the colonization of America, clearcutting forests was a common practice. Mill ponds dotted the landscape. Forest ecosystems naturally retain soil. Vegetation and the natural duff layer of leaves and debris allow percolation of rainwater and allow drainage without erosion of soil. Clearcutting the forests disrupted this system and led to the erosion of massive amounts of sediment. In our urban and suburban environments leaves and debris are considered to be waste, something to be quickly disposed of. Generally, we just do not stop to think about how often and how vigorously we defy the natural processes that were in place for a very long time.

After an effort of volunteers and businesses this spring, a large courtyard at Goode K-8 school in York became a place for children to experience nature, grow food, and learn about wildlife. Paul Kuehnel

Colonial mill ponds disrupted the natural stream system. Sediment that built up behind the mill ponds destroyed the wet meadows and flood plains that were part of the natural stream system. As civilization continued to develop we regarded stormwater and the sediment and nutrients that it contained as waste, to be sent downstream and disposed of. It is this attitude that soil conservation proponents are trying to change.

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Before excess nutrients and sediment disrupted the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, its waterways were teaming with oysters and other filter feeders. They filtered the relatively small amount of nutrients and sediment that that found its way to the Bay and provided a pristine environment in which all of the other fish and invertebrates could thrive.

The important point to remember is that we all have to do everything possible to improve our farming and land management practices. Start by keeping this in mind: Bare, uncovered or un-vegetated soil is completely unnatural. For homeowners, dedicating land to growing turf can be beneficial for the environment. Healthy turf filters stormwater and holds soil in place. Mulching beds or gardens actually mimics the duff layer in a mature forest. However, if you can see bare soil then some of that precious soil WILL wash away every time we have a significant rainfall further contributing to the poor health of the Chesapeake Bay. A ton or more of soil can be eroded from an acre of land in a year almost unnoticed. Furthermore, thin or non-existent vegetation encourages weeds. The best weed control is plenty of desirable vegetation which discourages the weeds.

If we all do our part, we can have a great quality of life and a healthy environment too!

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