Hills Nest Garden
My parents moved to the country in the early 2000’s with aspirations to plant orchards, gardens and create a food oasis. The soil looked poor but what can’t be fixed with a bit of compost, mulch and hard day’s work, right? Reality proved more challenging. Despite our efforts the fruit trees grew very slow. The garden was sometimes productive and sometimes not. So, we tried harder and built a complicated and expensive raised bed system. “Let's fill it with good soil”, it will be great! And it wasn’t. The same unreliable results followed. What were we missing? How can you plant a crop and know you’ve done everything you need to ensure a return?
Thankfully this story took a better turn when I decided to study agriculture. A career choice that suited my need for the outdoors perfectly. Ag Bachelor and then a Master’s degree in Cropping Sciences was a great way to go. After entering the soup of ideas at university I soon realised that anyone trying to understand agriculture is up for a serious challenge. Where do all these conflicting theories, ideas, and agricultural movements all come from? Standing around a soil pit, listening to three theories of what was happening in the profile, left me certain I was not getting any closer to a clearer understanding!
Recently I read an article about “what makes a good soil” published in a hydroponics magasine. It was a moment when I realised clearly that people just don’t understand soil. No surprise they are trying to grow without soil! If I had read the article four years earlier, I would not have known any better.
Thankfully a mentor came at a key time to give me some clarity. He pointed back to the soil and defined “what is a good soil”. This led to four years of studying soil with numerous mentors and experiences.
When my mentors started to help me, I was slow to be persuaded. I had heard too many theories already to hear another. I figured the only way I was going to reach a solid conclusion was to rip up some dirt and try things out myself. I soon found my limits investing all I could afford of my student funds, limited water, and the local wildlife claiming their “tax rates” by eating everything grown on "their land". I made many mistakes but each one was a guide to working out this great puzzle.
Making the plots
In hindsight, the soil restoration process starts with the obvious question, what does my soil need? Not just throwing on compost or manures because that’s what I have. I did not want to randomly, by chance improve my soil. I wanted to be sure the method was reliable. To cut the story short, I dug many holes and did soil test after soil test untill I understood how it worked. On my plots I found a soil test quickly revealed the underlying problems. After mineral corrections, a green manure crop activated the soil to life. It became clear to me what a good soil looked like. A good soil holds the roots, minerals, carbon, biology, water and air in a perfect balance to provide life to the plant above. The soil is the gut of the plant, digesting and preparing the food for the plant and the plant feeds the soil in return. To clarify these functions, I made the 6 Soil Health Principles. These principles cannot be ignored or defied without consequences and when they are followed they can help solve immediate problems or raise the quality of the crop to a new level.
Each soil health parameter can be observed, measured and corrected.
There are many tools we can use to help make a soil work properly, but a soil test is amongst the most powerful. It must be brought to attention that a soil test can be used to repair a soil or to feed the plant. These are two very different tactics. Feeding the plant has been the traditional, rather limited approach, however the soil needs other nutrients to function properly. Nutrients modify the soil environment by changing the soil structure and feeding the soil biology. A re-mineralised soil can feed a crop well, without us constantly needing to add extra feeding for the plant.
The primary focus of some testing services is to feed the plant, sending the soil's digestive role obsolete. This approach is the “hydroponic” method - supply all the plants nutritional needs with soluble fertilisers. This approach may save the immediate crop, but soils are far more than a of soluble nutrients for roots to plunder. In a functioning soil the plant sends packages of supplies to the soil biology asking for its daily nutritional requirements - they respond by feeding the plant. Soil carbon and cation exchange capacity (CEC) are banks of rapidly available nutrients. But this system does not work properly in most soils. We need to feed the soil to restore its ability to feed the plant.
After improving the soil in my trial plots, one of the first crops was garlic. I had some old cloves which I had not planted in time. Those miserable cloves became giants, and things grew like never before! Plants which I had never been able to grow properly, like eggplants were all producing abundantly. To make sure that the system worked, I started growing strawberries. Organic strawberries are plagued with extreme disease pressures, pests and post-harvest issues, making them a perfect test crop to see if the system was working. That season, the garden provided low disease, high quality organic strawberries to Melbourne restaurants, receiving compliments of the “best strawberries I have ever had”. And underneath the crop the soil grew darker and deeper throughout the season.
Soils can be grown! And it doesn’t take a thousand years. A crop can be grown reliably by taking some simple steps. These principles apply to any soil, regardless of scale. When you take care of your soil, it will take care of you. Success doesn’t need to be a surprise.
Many farmers and small grower have their passion drained as crops under perform. Small horticultural growers and market gardeners lacked a service focused on soil restoration that is simple and straight forward. In response, I began to set up a service to streamline the process to help growers understand soil without waiting five years to figure it out like me. This involved crafting a soil testing service that focused on soil renovation rather than plant feeding. Some growers lacked access to nutrient blending services for their scale, so a mixing service was also needed to supply quantities under the one tonne industry mixing threshold.
I have become passionate to make soil health principles as simple as possible for all. It has been a great journey where every problem has led to a clearer vision for the future.