Natural and diverse soil is a living thing – it is very slowly moving, changing, and growing all the time. Just like other living things, soil breathes and needs air and water to stay alive.
All life on earth depends on healthy soil, but a mere 10% of the earth’s surface is dirt. Topsoil, the layer of soil that most of our food plants grow in, is usually only around 10 inches deep.
While plants can draw nutrients from potting soil, they will thrive and grow best when planted in a living soil system. If you want healthier plants it may be time to consider growing them outside, where they will have access to the nutrients that microorganisms form in natural soil.
If you’re a home gardener or if you grow plants inside, you definitely want to learn about living soil and how to make it at home!
So What Is Living Soil?
In short, living soil is all about the diverse number of mutually beneficial microorganisms that live in our soil. From fungi, and bacteria to nematodes and, earthworms that all work in harmony to break down organic matter creating the healthiest and most nutritious environmental conditions for our plants - homegrown and naturally grown.
Soil life is a deeply complicated thing. It is a complex mixture of organic matter, minerals, gasses, and organisms. All soil begins with a mineral mix. In nature, these broken-down minerals are supplemented by the natural byproducts of growth, life, and decay. This produces a complex environment chock full of the nutrients that plants need.
While we might think of plants as getting everything they need from the sun, water, and dirt, it’s important to realize that “dirt” is very complicated! Evolution has created a delicate and amazing symbiotic relationship between plants and the microbial life in the soil, like fungi, bacteria, and protozoa.
These varied organisms help feed the plants by converting organic matter into a plant usable form of nutrients, and the plants feed them by releasing carbons and sugars through their roots back into the soil.
Plants, too, are alive and find what they need in the soil in which they naturally live. Soil has a relationship with the living plant where nutrients are exchanged between the two to promote ideal plant growth.
What Is In Living Soil?
All soil is composed of the same general material. Minerals, organic matter, organisms and microorganisms, and nutrients are found in soil all over the world.
The differing ratios between these components are what makes some soil more fertile than others. For example, let's look at two of the most common soil types in our garden.
Clay soils are one of the most nutrient-dense soil types there are. However, as with everything else nature has to offer us. It's never simple. Although clay soil is incredibly diverse and nutrient-rich is it also an incredibly heavy and moisture-retentive soil. Often getting waterlogged in heavy rainfall areas.
Its density also means it can often have lower oxygen levels which can slow the growth of the plants in our garden and make it difficult for the plant roots to find what they need.
Sandy soils are another common garden soil type that is almost at the opposite end of the spectrum to clay types. These soils tend to have far fewer nutrients than their clay-type counterparts and, although it is very warm and fast-draining dirt it does dry out very quickly during summer months and has a far lower level of important plant growth nutrients.
Sandy soils don't tend to be a very healthy growing environment for our plants and it is common to have to find alternative growing methods or have to improve these soil conditions to make it healthy for the growth of our plants and their roots.
The Diverse Environment
Let’s go over the basic components of soil to better understand what makes living soil so special.
- Mineral content: The inorganic part of soil is its mineral content. It consists of a mix of three types of particles: sand, silt, and clay. Sand particles are the largest, then silt, and then the tiny clay particles are the smallest in size. The mix of particle types determines the soil’s structure and texture, which impact how well it drains and how nutrients are made available to plants. The best soil for plant growth is called loam. In loamy soil, there’s roughly the same amount of sand, silt, and clay.
- Organic matter: This is sometimes called humus, and it is dead plant material in various stages of decomposition. The more organic matter there is in the soil, the more opportunities there are for organisms to feed. An overabundance of decaying material, however, can lead to bad smells and pests.
- Organisms and microorganisms: These are the animals (like insects, crustaceans, and arachnids), bacteria, and fungi that feed on organic matter. This microbial life cycle the nutrients that are in plant material back into a usable form for other plants and help break down the raw organic matter that falls on the soil’s surface.
- Nutrients: Plants need about 20 different types of nutrients for good health. These are necessary elements that let plants complete their life functions, and nearly all of them come from the soil. There are two types of nutrients: macronutrients and micronutrients.
- Macronutrients are needed in large amounts. They include hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, carbon, calcium, magnesium, and sulfur. The most important are nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and potassium (K). You may have seen these letters together if you’ve ever purchased fertilizer— plants from different environments need different NPK ratios.
- Micronutrients are needed in smaller amounts. These include boron, chlorine, manganese, iron, zinc, copper, molybdenum, nickel, sodium, cobalt, and silicon.
It’s important to remember that living soil balances itself naturally. While those chemical nutrients are found in living soil, they are not added via synthetic fertilizers. Instead, they are natural byproducts of soil formation. If you make your own living soil, you’ll be adding these things through compost!
Why Should You Use Living Soil?
If living soil and potting soil can both give plants what they need, why choose one over the other? Especially if one seems like it might be more work at first?
The answer here is that living soil allows the plant to naturally select and absorb the nutrients it needs when it needs them, instead of taking in nutrients on your schedule. It's full of such a varied range of bacteria, fungi, and other organisms like worms that your garden vegetation will never be starved of its most needed nutrients.
This leads to better plant growth, prettier flowers, healthier leaves, and— perhaps most importantly— tastier fruits and vegetables! Think about a farm-fresh tomato and a tomato from the grocery store. Food grown in living earth is more nutritious and so much more delicious.
The other answer is that living soil is way easier than using synthetic fertilizers on your soil! You don’t really have to worry about the N P K balance of your chosen plant food or how much to add or anything like that when you use living soil. All you have to remember to do is to feed it with high-quality compost and the nutrient ratios work themselves out. It’s so easy!
How To Make Living Soil
To make living soil, you need to think like an ecosystem. You could feed your plants with synthetic fertilizers but that can lead to nutrient burn and requires precise, careful dosing and consistent applications. Or, you could feed the earth and let your plants draw what they need, as they need it.
Unless you’re working with virgin soil that has never had chemical applications like pesticides or fertilizers, there’s always a chance that your garden earth will need some help before you start planting in it.
If you’re doing container gardening, raised beds, permaculture, or mixing growing media for houseplants, you can make your living soil with just three ingredients: sphagnum peat moss, perlite, or pumice, and compost. Natural soil building takes decades, but you can mimic the process in your own home!
To create living soil, simply mix one part sphagnum peat moss, one part perlite or pumice for aeration, and one part compost. If you don’t want to use perlite or pumice, you can also use lica or hydroballs, which are expanded clay pellets that do the same thing. Aeration is necessary to allow air and moisture to travel through the soil and makes room for plant roots to grow.
The compost you choose needs to be high quality and nutrient-dense. Some people like to use worm castings or buy compost at the garden center or hardware store, but if you want to be extra environmentally-friendly (and budget-friendly!), you can make your own compost at home.
Once you add food waste processed in your Lomi to your garden or to the earth you plan to use for your houseplants, it interacts with the bacteria in the soil and makes it into living soil. The nutrients in food waste aren’t wasted when fed to beneficial bacteria! The output from your Lomi home composter is a perfect additive to make the microorganisms in your living soil thrive.
Should I Add Organisms To My Houseplants?
While houseplants certainly benefit from all the components of living, natural soil, you should think twice before adding organisms to your houseplants’ pots. The reason for this is the more complex a living thing is, the more complex its needs are.
Beneficial bacteria and microorganisms, for example, are content when their basic environmental needs are met and they have a nutrient source. They don’t need very much! But even a lifeform as seemingly simple as an earthworm needs more life support than most plant pots have room for.
Adding invertebrates to your potted plants usually doesn’t work out very well. If you want the benefits of earthworms, you could mix vermicast in with your soil— or you could make your own compost with Lomi! Lomi’s Eco Mode produces nutrient-rich dirt that plants can use just like vermicast, which will increase their nutrient uptake, without you having to buy anything extra.
Nutrient Cycling and Living Soil
Soil plays a crucial role in nature’s cycles, including the nutrient cycle. This involves how organic matter and chemicals are taken up and stored in soil. Soil microorganisms are responsible for breaking down decaying organic matter and converting atmospheric nitrogen into mineral nitrogen so that it can be used by plants.
When we introduce nitrogen, phosphates, and other chemicals via synthetic fertilizer, this induces plant growth… but not all of these chemicals are taken up by plants. This creates an excess of these chemicals, which can then enter rivers and lakes. This in turn affects life and water quality in these ecosystems.
But when living soil is allowed to process chemicals on its own, this story changes. As plants release chemicals through their roots and organic compounds as they drop leaves and flowers, microorganisms convert them to forms that are usable by the plants. This cycle keeps the chemicals in the system in amounts that are healthy for the environment. Through organic compost, we can help improve this cycle without the need for extra chemicals.
Some ways that organic farmers help maintain this delicate balance in the earth is by planting 'green manure'. This green manure is essential a cover crop of plants, that is dug back into the soil between crop cycles to help the continuation of the cycle of vegetation feeding the earth and the earth feeding the cover crop.
The use of a cover crop is something we can do in our gardens as well if we want to improve our environmental conditions, providing a wider variety of nutrient uptake for our plants. If you have a space that is generally bare during the winter months, you can purchase seeds that will help maintain nutrient levels in your empty beds until you are ready to grow your vegetables or flowers in the following spring.
If you’re a gardener or plant parent who wants to give living soil a try, you’ll need a great source of compost. Lomi by Pela is a new, sustainable way to reduce food waste and create compost, no matter how big or small your space is.
This handy appliance fits on your countertop and turns your food waste into compost at the touch of a button. Lomi is available now for purchase in the US and Canada; international shipping will be available starting in September 2022.