Why soil health is important to you

If you own a home you likely own soil, lots of it. We don’t often think about the volume of soil we own. It always surprises me when we excavate for a project just how much earth there is in seemingly small urban lots. Most home properties in Pittsburgh have over a thousand square feet of exposed soil. Huge amounts of urban soil is underutilized. By improving the health of your soil you activate a powerful, hidden ecosystem.

These are four potential functions your soil could be performing:

  • strengthen the health and beauty of your garden and lawn
  • reduce domestic water usage and manage stormwater run-off
  • offset your carbon footprint
  • increase biodiversity and increase your happiness

Healthy, beautiful lawn and garden

For many people soil is just a growing medium in which we can put fertilizer and plants will grow. That does happen, but it is not just what soil is to plants. Soil has the ability to turn dead foliage into nutrients, store them, regulate, transport, and release nutrients to plants, thereby reducing our need to micromanage nutrients. Some of the species in soils ecosystem are fungi which link plants like an underground internet. This communication allows plants to light disease and even prepare for the future. That is great news because it reduces disease and blight.

Water management

Healthy soil slows stormwater runoff, retains water and provides plants better access to water between watering. Soil structure has a big influence on soil’s hydraulic properties. A garden or lawn rooted in soil that is deep, porous and high in organic material will benefit most plants we want growing. We can build our soil up and down which increases the ‘empty’ gas filled volume that water will fill when watering or raining. In a big rain storm this space will fill up rather than the water running off into your basement or down the storm sewer. Slowly over the next few days that water will drain out. The plentiful organic material in healthy soil will retain a good amount of that water like a sponge. With the mycorrhizal fungi found in healthy soil, plants have resilient access to those water reserves.

 Watch this demonstration of plants affecting water capacity in prairie soils:

Play Video

Carbon sequestration and healthy air

We hear a lot about carbon credits and the need to reduce our carbon footprint, but maybe we want to increase our carbon footprint? Specifically the carbon footprint in the soil around our house. Poor soils left from home construction and traditional yard care have depleted levels of carbon and are unable to sequester new carbon. The black color in healthy soil is an indicator is caused by high levels of carbon. Dig a little hole in your lawn and if that soil is not black you have the opportunity to turn your lawn into a carbon bank! You will be doing your plants a favor as carbon in the soil is vital to good growth.

“Huge amounts of carbon can be stored by nurturing soil health, as ecological gardeners everywhere are already doing”

– Adrian Ayres Fisher, Ecological Landscape Alliance

Habitat for wildlife and people

Pest control is best handled by a healthy web of life. We want lots of predatory insects and amphibians in our gardens. The same is true for parasites and bacteria. Healthy soil, like a healthy body, has the inherent ability to self regulate whether by competition or active immune system. If for no other reason than plant health we want to keep our soil habitat vibrant. Of course birds, squirrels and bats will also like all those bugs and little creatures. But probably the most important creature that depends on healthy soil is you, because you have the power to change the soil, for better or worse.

Let’s take a look at soil as human habitat. There are some obvious ways soil can provide our basic human physical needs – water, food, air – but most people don’t rely on their own soil for the bulk of these physical needs. But, as it turns out, we do rely on soil to provide for mental health needs. Biophilia is the interconnection of humans and the environment. Consider what our city would be like if we took away soil. No flowers, no lawns, no trees, no animals, no backyard garden – yikes! The smell that comes after a rain – the smell of sweet dank earth – is a mix of gases formed by active soil. You breath those gases in which puts soil biology directly into your body. You also breath in little bits of soil that escape into the air when gardening, while the kids are playing, and when the wind is blowing. When you breath in soil you are absorbing a microscopic sliver of an ecosystem that includes millions of bacteria, and that’s not a bad thing. There have been findings that bacteria found in soil triggers the release of serotonin, causing you happiness. Other soil based bacteria are now believed to reduce stress in humans.

Living, healthy soil is the future

Like art hung on our walls, well crafted soil creates a home that is more human. And like art and human health, our understanding of soil health and how we make it is evolving. 500 years ago Leanardo DaVinci wrote “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot” but we are changing that through research and general awareness. We pay for art and spend time exercising because we feel they are good for our wellbeing. A well gardened house is your home’s visible hygiene, it’s what both you and other people see every day. As soil health becomes more mainstream people will take notice. You probably already have a sense of good soil because you know that smell when you enter Phipps Conservatory, take a walk along Squaw Run, breath in that sweet mountain air, or enter a vibrant garden. Healthy soil is important because soil is one of the foundations for a good life. The good news is that with so much information, products and services available to us it is becoming much easier to craft and maintain good soil health.

If you are new to soil health, the first thing to do is get an evaluation, like a regular checkup at your doctor. Soil evaluations screen for common diseases, check vital signs for plant and ecological support, and are part of a regular program of healthy homes. You can perform some of your own evaluations and tests and we are happy to share how to do soil evaluations and soil tests. Once you know what the condition of your soil you can better feed and care for it to improve and sustain a healthy home.

Humus, which is 60 percent carbon, can remain in undisturbed soils for hundreds or even thousands of years before eventually decomposing and releasing its carbon back to the atmosphere. By contrast, the humus in most cultivated soils lasts just a few years or decades.

– National Audubon Society,  “The Hidden Carbon Trap in Your Garden?

Soil health is important

Soil is more than an inert growing medium, it’s an integral part of the local ecosystem, contribute to the value and beauty of your home, play a role in your mental health, manage stormwater, improve air quality, provide for urban wildlife and digest chemical contaminants that make their way to our house. This post will explore why soil health is important to your home.