Soil for Christmas

Kiss the Ground by Josh Tickell

THE ABSENTEE GARDENERS

By Kit Flynn and Lise Jenkins

We have a tradition in our house. My husband asks what I want for Christmas. I reply, “a load of well-rotted manure for my garden beds.” He rolls his eyes.

Gardeners know it’s all about the soil. Sure, the plants are pretty, the rock walls sublime, the perfectly-sited pond a joy to behold — but if you don’t have healthy soil you won’t have a garden.

Our soil is that dynamic boundary mixing the living and the dead. Perhaps a brief sidetrack might be helpful: let’s start at the center of the earth.

Tremendous pressure at our earth’s core pushes molten minerals towards the surface. When they arrive at their destination, chemical and mechanical forces break down the minerals into ever-smaller pieces — mountains become rocks, rocks become gravel, gravel becomes sand.

Here on the surface organisms live, die and decompose. These two worlds, the mineral one pushing upwards and the living one falling down, mix together. The result is a blanket of soil covering our earth’s surface. This process takes time, in fact, scientists estimate it takes 10,000 years to produce just one inch of topsoil.

But what takes centuries to create is easily destroyed. Cut, dig or expose the soil to wind, wear or rain and it quickly erodes away. Since humanity transitioned from a hunt-and-gather culture to an agrarian one, our means of feeding ourselves has consumed our topsoil.

Historians and archeologists have documented cycles of agricultural expansion, population increase, soil erosion and production collapse from Mesopotamia up to our modern times. 

My grammar school teachers made dire predictions: Soon we would be unable to feed our populations, resulting in mass starvation and social upheaval. I’ve felt helpless since the second grade.

Josh Tickell has lifted that gloomy mantle and it’s just the message we all might need during this holiday season. His book 2017, “Kiss the Ground,” is now a movie available on Netflix.

Tickell’s book guides us along the path that connects our kitchens to wider environmental issues, building a compelling case for regenerative agricultural practices. Another sidetrack may be helpful to define regenerative agricultural.

Conventional agriculture practices prescribe deep tilling of the soil to remove weeds, planting hundreds, or thousands, of acres of a single crop, and using chemical pesticides and fertilizers to manage growth.

By contrast, regenerative agriculture emphasizes not tilling the soil, alternating rows of different crops, rotating animals through fields and avoiding chemicals in an effort to maintain the health of the soil. Tickell’s book presents profiles of farmers who are successfully employing regenerative agriculture — they have enjoyed yields and, perhaps most important, higher profitability.

Regenerative agricultural practices have the added benefit of sequestering carbon in the soil, a key tactic in our efforts to reduce atmospheric emissions.

Tickell offers realistic steps we can all take and introduces us to people making a difference right now.  He doesn’t shy away from the science, covering the topic thoroughly without overwhelming the reader.

Hosted by Woody Harrelson, the movie is happily entertaining. It doesn’t feel preachy or shaming, but rather enlightening and hopeful.

“Kiss the Ground” is an enjoyable story that delivers an upbeat message. It might just be what your family needs this season. When my husband watched it with me, he actually enjoyed it. He now better understands my focus on the soil in our garden.

Thanks to Josh Tickell’s book and movie, I’m hopeful that I may actually get that load of well-rotted manure I’ve been asking for Christmas.

Kit and I will be back next year. Until then, we send along our very best wishes for a happy and healthy 2021! 


Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email: info@absentee-gardener.com

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