WHAT IS SOIL ANYWAY?

Friday 22nd April // Reflections by Hannah Baxter

Today I went along to ‘What is soil?’ because I wasn’t really that sure about it and wanted to find out! The workshop was led by Malcolm Coull, from the James Hutton Institute, and Abi Mordin, from Propagate. There were also quite a few worms involved who led by action rather than with words.

Malcolm gave a talk about soil which, he said, is made from inorganic material, organic materials, water, air and beasties. It is formed by the climate (the wind blowing materials about and the cold pushing rocks apart) and organisms, and it takes a very, very long time to make. Soil is best known for growing things in – and many people in the room were experienced gardeners – but it is also good at storing water, storing carbon, locking up chemicals, supporting buildings and preserving the past. It is also a home for millions of organisms – apparently there are more living things in a teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet. But there are big problems facing soil – competing demands from various people, pollution from industry, floods washing it away, overgrazing and weathering.

Abi then talked about compost. This led to a little debate about what should go into compost. Is it okay to put in cooked food? Abi thought not, and most agreed, as it can attract rats and mice but an allotment holder present puts it into his compost – controversial! Should orange and lemon peel go in? It can but it takes a long time to break down. And what about human poo? Abi makes humanure! But she wouldn’t use cat or dog poo. Essentially Abi explained that composting is helping to speed up a natural process of organic matter breaking down and for this to happen the organisms doing the work need to be kept happy with food, shelter, heat and water. Compost is not the same as soil; but it is added to soil to improve it.

There was then a practical part of the workshop and we were asked to think about whether soil can be made. If soil is depleted this might actually have to happen as soil would not naturally form as fast as existing soil is being exhausted. Malcolm asked if people would be comfortable with growing plants in this type of soil and mostly everyone seemed cool with that. We then had a go at making soil. I say we but actually I didn’t as my hands are very dry and sore from being in allotment soil a lot this week! This soil was a mix of ground down bricks and ash to make up the non-organic part and Abi’s compost to make the organic part, along with helpful worms and other tiny organisms too small for us to see.

The workshop gave me a lot of questions to think about. Are we being good enough to our soil? What will happen if it is depleted? Will we have to ‘make’ soil and how could this happen on a large enough scale? Abi also asked where does the top soil imported for community gardens and allotments come from – is it okay to move soil around like this? But with these questions, I did get the very helpful answer from Malcolm and Abi to ‘What is soil anyway?’