Living soil

SOIL DECLINE is a major problem.

It leads to reduced yields, increased costs, greater weed problems and more difficult management.

For many farmers, it is a hidden problem because:

  1. SOIL is often covered
  2. CROPS and pastures seem fine until the yield is measured at harvest.

As a result, soil is not well understood and yet it is the lifeblood of farming and grazing.

Plants, microbes and animals don’t just consume what is there. They contribute to and shape the environment to suit themselves.

Plants play a major role in keeping soils alive for their own benefit. In the process they benefit animals, microbes and other plants while they build the long-term fertility of the soil.

The soil is a teeming mass of life with the weight of organisms below the soil surface often weighing tens of times as much as those above the surface. All of these soil organisms are constantly turning over material and in the process releasing nutrients in a more usable form for something else.

Soil dies, not usually directly from over tillage and farm chemicals, but because when the food supply runs out, most soil organisms go dormant (go into a suspended or sleep state). If this starvation dormancy goes on long enough, they won’t wake from dormancy, but go into the big sleep – they will die.

So plants must be grown for more than just harvest. They must also feed the soil that feeds them.

Forces that Living soil can resolve include:

  • Soil organisms that lack food may die out and never return.
  • Concentrating almost exclusively on the productive phase of farming has displaced the restorative phase. So, building soil health and fertility have often been reduced to the shorthand of chemicals. And that will not restore or build rich soils that can sustain production. In fact it won’t sustain just the soil.
  • Over control of farming land leads to salinity, scalded soil, desert, ruined soils.


Results from Living soil include:

FarmPatterns explained  

This is a FarmPattern. For more info on how FarmPatterns can make your farm work for you instead of you working for the farm, read this on how:
FarmPatterns can cut your workload and improve your profit at

Soil comes back to life. Soil that’s alive is soil that is in motion: Energy, compounds, soil particles and nutrients are all being turned over. Each time they are cycled in this way, there is an opportunity for one of your plants to grab a nutrient that it needs and use that nutrient to grow more product.

As a result, your plants are more able to grow because nutrients are available all the time and plenty of nutrient is cycling and thus available at times of potential high growth, when moisture and temperature are right.

What Living soil means:

A saying that summarizes Living soil is: 

Plants make soil

And another is:

Feed the soil, not the plant

We must encourage plants, microbes and animals to contribute to and shape the environment to suit themselves and to meet our needs and wants. Plants are major agents of change.

The most obvious example is the legume, a plant that captures nitrogen, a key nutrient and one that plants need in big quantities. It captures nitrogen from the air through another organism, a bacterium that lives in the roots of the legume. This bacterium is a rhizobium, which means bacterium which lives in the root.

But almost all plants give off substances to make soil minerals and other nutrients more available to them. These substances also provide food or conditions for the survival and development of other organisms.

And these substances build soil structure. Structure is like the crumb structure that makes bread airy. The substances that plants give off glue the soil particles together to make a strong crumb structure that is an open framework similar to a sponge or loaf of bread.

Some forms of rhizobium are able to “fix” or convert the nitrogen in the soil atmosphere into a form which is available to the legume it lives in. When the legume dies or drops off roots, nitrogen becomes available for other plants and soil organisms. The bacterium survives only because the legume provides sugars and a home in return for nitrogen. This partnership improves the soil for the legume and then for any other organism that needs nitrogen and cannot fix it. This simple example shows how some plants change their environment.

Structure improves water inflow, drainage and the ability of the soil to breathe air in and waste gases out. Structure also allows roots, worms and other soil life to penetrate and provides stability against compaction and erosion.

The burrowing activities of worms, crickets, ants, beetles and more create pores, spaces through which other animals, roots, gases and water can travel more easily.

The soil surface is either breathing or is sealed. The more that happens below the surface, the more likely it is that some organisms will break the surface, thus preventing it crusting or sealing. If the surface does seal, breathing and water infiltration slow and may stop. So, plants keep the soil from doing this by feeding those systems.

The key to the survival of this planet is turnover or biological activity. If we didn’t have that, we’d be up to our armpits in manure, dead leaves and flies. A biologically active soil is part of that process, turning dead leaves into green ones via the myriad other processes in the underworld.

Plants provide food when they are alive and more so when they die. Where there are living plants there is a continuing supply of dead plant matter. Without living plants the supply of food for soil organisms runs out.

Soil that has not been nurtured becomes less capable of supporting plant growth. It is often harder, denser, less able to hold and release nutrients and less able to absorb, hold and release moisture. In other words, it becomes less like soil and more like concrete:

  • Roots have difficulty penetrating it.
  • Shoots are less able to push through to the surface.
  • Weed problems become worse
  • Tillage becomes more difficult.
  • Cropping is less profitable and more risky and
  • The soil and the farm become much harder to understand and manage.

Some plants give off substances that reduce diseases in the soil or encourage the growth of other organisms that clean up the soil for the current plants or the ones that follow. For example, canola (a brassica) cleans up take-all, a disease which reduces wheat growth and yield. So, just including a brassica in the rotation can cut disease for wheat growers.

Plants keep the soil from dying by feeding the system

Soil structure, soil nitrogen, soil organic matter, water-holding capacity, tilth, soil biological activity and more all improve with plants. They deteriorate in the absence of plants or where there are few plants such as in a bare-earth row-crop field, for example under cotton and herbicides or under overgrazing or over tillage.

And if plants grow deep roots, then plants make soil deeper or make deep soil. If the roots are shallow, then plants can only make shallow soil.

Plants make soil

“Plants make soil” is not absolutely correct, but it is accurate enough for a rule of thumb. And it points the right direction and helps avoids falling into a common and wrong attitude to soil:

Some people treat soil as a collection of minerals and a place to stand plants while feeding them artificial fertilizers.

When soil is treated like this, farming is like broadacre hydroponics with less water. A fuller and more realistic picture of healthy soil is that it consists of

  • living things – plants, animals, microbes – and their wastes that are food for other parts of the soil flora and fauna
  • mineral content
  • gases and
  • water.

Farming and grazing remove materials. If those materials are not replaced, there is less food for the remaining organisms and the soil begins to die.

Adding fertilizers does not return to the soil the full range of things that are removed, nor is what is added in balance with what the soil needs. Unless there is a high rate of organic matter turnover, a high level of soil organic matter and a low rate of removal, most soils are on a downward spiral.

Plants are the most obvious way to improve biological activity and the part of the solution that is most easily managed.

So plants are easy to focus on for good results in terms of soil building and improving. Without living and dying plants, soil gains little from outside.

Using Living soil

First steps: assess your soil compared with the original soil in your district. Look at the yield changes over time compared with your need for fertilizer and changes in varieties, chemical use and other management changes.

Look at the results of your management:

  • Do you have a rotation that benefits the soil?
  • Do you grow green manures to benefit the soil?
  • Do you grow undersown/undergrown legumes etc to benefit the soil?
  • Is your soil biologically active?
  • What soil diseases and other soil problems do you have?
  • Does your soil crust in a way that is different from the un-farmed soil?
  • Do you have hard pans?
  • Is your infiltration rate lower than it could be (little water soaks in compared with what is desired)?
  • Does the rain run off quickly, filling water storages or leaving the property via creeks and rivers?
  • Do you have a weed problem that is getting worse? (Weeds colonize areas that desired crop and pasture plants struggle to survive in.)

Some ways to get the benefits of Living soil


  • Sow green manures: Growing something knowing you won’t harvest it seems a bit odd at first, but it will lead to better soil, easier pest management and better yields with lower costs. For more info on how to put something back into your soil: explore why sometimes it’s better not to harvest, but to
    green manure a crop. There you can see how other farmers have used green manures and follow some links to handy examples.
  • Plant undersown or undergrown “crops” under your main crop to minimize compaction at harvest and during other operations and provide nitrogen, organic matter and possibly later grazing with the crop stubbles.
  • Set up a rotation
  • Mulch vegetable, tree or row crops. You can bring in the mulch from outside your property or harvest it on your land and cut and carry it to its target spot. Better still, you can grow it yourself and use a cut and throw technique. To do this, you grow the mulch crop between the rows and then slash it such that the slasher throws it onto the rows. Successful combinations of mulch crop and harvestable crop include:
  • Leon Sivvyer’s return to the soil shows how
    one farmer made his animals and his soil do better by giving each the best of the pasture by returning a third to the soil.


So, in summary, Living soil is about:

Growing plants open up the soil with living roots penetrating and softening toughened soils with plant exudates which loosen nutrients from the grip of clays and other soil mineral and organic particles.

Dying roots leaving gaps for other organisms – already lined with the food they need which is the decaying plant root.

Plants stimulate the biological activity which is the lifeblood of the soil and thus increase Nutrient cycling such that every cycle makes more nutrients available for your soil and your benefit.

Where Living soil fits into agriculture:

If your soil is hard compared to the undisturbed native soil of the same type on your property or nearby this pattern would most likely improve it. It helps you resuscitate dying soil by growing plants to feed the organisms in the soil – microbes, macrobes, other plants and to bring about Enhanced cycling.

In this way you ensure that the Soil feeds plants and that Soil is actively developed because Soil is central to any form of farming and grazing.

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