The secret life of soil - TasWater

The secret life of soil - TasWater

WaterSense with the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens 13 The secret life of soil The secret life of soil with Marcus Ragus The term ‘dirt’ is often...

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WaterSense with the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens


The secret life of soil

The secret life of soil with Marcus Ragus The term ‘dirt’ is often used to describe soil, but that term really does not do this marvellous material justice. If people knew more about what makes up a good soil and understood that soil is truly one of the miracle factors for overall life on earth, we would be far more respectful. Soils are essentially made up of a few key components:

Beneath the surface of our soil is a secret world of amazing life! It has been said that if you pick up a handful of healthy organic soil you are holding more living creatures than the total amount of the human population that has ever lived on planet earth.

• the mineral fraction such as the sand, silt and clay; • the organic fraction including living and decaying organisms; • air and water, which play an incredibly important role in making life happen. Soils also contain the mineral nutrient elements required by all living creatures to grow; these in turn form the basis of the enormous and complex living systems of the soil.

Soil ecosystems There are thousands of different organisms that inhabit the soil ecosystem, from the very small or micro organisms such as bacteria, protozoa, nematodes and fungi to the large, such as earthworms. Many of these creatures co-exist in symbiotic relationships with plants, benefiting both plants and organisms. More than 98% of plants have some form of relationship with independent soil organisms on or near their roots. These relationships assist plants with nutrition and water intake as well as protecting their roots from other potentially harmful organisms. Examples of these relationships are legume plants such as peas, beans and clover and many others that have adapted parts of their roots to host specialised bacteria that turn atmospheric nitrogen into plant usable forms of nitrogen. Many plants have specific fungal root associations known as mycorrhizal relationships that can actually increase the surface areas of roots and therefore absorption of certain nutrients. These can also help the plant to conserve water in difficult times. These natural associations should be encouraged to develop as they enable the plant to absorb essential nutrients as they require them rather than through the addition of fertilisers. Using fertilisers can often lead to excess nutrition and plants requiring more water.

WaterSense with the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Gardens

Looking after your soil In some cases certain horticultural practices can harm the delicate balance of the soil organism relationships with plants. Therefore it’s important to not only know what is good for the plants but also what is good for the soil life!

Secret life of soil

Some things which can encourage beneficial soil organisms in your garden include: • When working an existing garden bed try minimal digging or even No Dig Gardening (see the No Dig Jig factsheet). If you must cultivate, only cultivate to a maximum depth of 200mm using a shallow hoe or cultivator and only do this to a maximum of once every 6 months. • When planting seedlings only cultivate a small area in the immediate planting zone rather than the entire garden bed, for example 10cm circles are more than adequate. • Try setting aside a part of your garden bed to compost pathways made of hay, they limit compaction underfoot and provide an ideal environment for beneficial soil organisms as well as reducing water inputs. • Limit or avoid fertilisers that provide sudden high doses of nutrition such as commercial liquid and granular fertilisers, and if you must add fertilisers add well-made home compost plus some organic fertilisers which, if used in moderation, are fine. • Mulch with high organic and quick breakdown mulches such as hay and compost, which are ideal for rapid ‘good’ organism growth.

It’s easy once you know what to do; healthy organisms mean water savings and great plant growth!

To learn more about WaterSense gardening, check out the online videos at or