Dirt Is Not Soil

Written by Claire Swetlin

In this blog post, I am going to talk about a common misconception in gardening. Dirt is the stuff you walk around on during the day, in the park or in your backyard and soil is the stuff in a garden bed. Dirt and soil are not the same thing, in fact, the difference between them is very important for gardening. The difference may seem small on the surface, but dig a little deeper and it’s clear the difference is between millions of living organisms and some crushed up rocks. A simple way to sum it up: soil is alive, dirt is dead. Soil is the goal for a gardener, you want your soil to be rich in nutrients and organisms to help feed and take care of the plant. As we have talked about in several other blog posts, all the nutrients we get from plants, they get from the soil. To have a plant full of vitamins and nutrition for us, the soil needs to have all of those things as well. Basically: whatever is in the soil, is in us. Be it chemicals or nutrients.

So soil is important for growing plants, especially for human consumption. But there are other reasons soil is the gold standard for gardening. Because soil is so much more complex structurally than dirt, it is much better at retaining water and reducing water runoff. Soil also is a key component of the carbon cycle, and because of its nutritional connection to plants, is able to fix carbon and store it below ground. Dirt is unable to fix and store carbon and it also tends to get warmer than soil, effectively aiding in the warming of the planet while soil helps to fight climate change. In fact, a new Netflix movie, Kiss The Ground, that PICA recently watched touched on the power soil holds in fighting climate change. If you have dirt, then you have the beginning of soil. Now you need to add nutrients, the most common way being the introduction of compost into your dirt. This will work just fine for your personal garden at home. But what about large scale industrial farming? Unfortunately, scientists have given the public a figure of between 60-100 crop seasons left due to the rate that we are losing topsoil. Topsoil is a type of soil, it is the top 5-10 inches of soil. This soil is highest in nutrients and the most essential type of soil for growing crops. Topsoil cannot be artificially recreated and we are losing topsoil about 10 times faster than we can regenerate it. Topsoil is essential for growing food.

What Can You Do About It?

  • Use no-till methods of gardening. This means disturbing your soil as little as possible. It may seem counterintuitive, but the soil knows what it’s doing. Structures and nutrients pathways will be created, as well as a system of fixing carbon. All of this gets disrupted when the gardener turns over the soil, exposing delicate soil to the hot sun and harsh weather.

  • Compost, compost, compost! Reduce your personal greenhouse gas emissions, provide more space in your yard or garden for carbon fixing and give back to the soil.

  • Cover crops! Cover crops help maintain and rejuvenate the soil after a long season. These crops protect the soil from the sun and harsh elements and reduce water runoff between harvests or seasons. They also give back nutrients to the soil through their roots and then once their season is over, let them wilt and die on the soil. This provides the soil with fresh, organic matter which will decompose and add to the topsoil layer.

  • Buy your produce if you can, specifically from farms that use no-till methods. Your money is like a vote, support farmers who are using practices you believe in.

Soil may seem inconspicuous. It is rarely talked about in climate change discourses and the science around healthy soil is new. But without a doubt, it is a certainty that we will not reverse climate change without fixing our soil problem. For me, it was EXTREMELY shocking to find out top climate change scientists believe we only have less than 100 harvests left before our soil is depleted so much that we cannot feed all the people in the world. That isn’t 100 years, its 100 harvests, meaning more like 50 or fewer years. It would be impossible for us to solve any of our other problems if we didn’t have enough food. This problem will affect everyone, but as with most other global threats, those who are white, wealthy and live in the “Western world” may never notice the devastation that will occur if this becomes a reality. This is an intersection issue and as such, needs intersection solutions. Gardens, Educators and Activists To Learn From:

  • Planting Justice: a nonprofit garden that provides work to formerly incarcerated peoples, educates high school students about food justice and maintains 450+ edible gardens throughout the Bay Area.

  • Farms To Grow: a nonprofit that gives grants to Black farmers and other underserved farmers to help them maintain and create sustainable systems of food production.

  • Tori Tsui: has a podcast called Bad Activist Podcast that focuses on racial justice, queer rights and climate change.

  • Vandana Shiva: a long time climate activists, seed sovereignty supporter and all-around cool lady. PICA recently created a video about her and it will be up on our website soon!

  • Dr. Ayana Eliza: climate activist with a focus on marine life. She has founded several orgs, Ocean Collectiv and Urban Ocean Lab.

  • Browngirl_green: a great Instagram page run by Kristy. She posts informative climate justice news, has a podcast and a blog with racial and climate justice information.

  • Leah Thomas: has a thorough Instagram page and website. She preaches the idea that all environmentalists should be antiracist. Check her out!

Check out PICA's blog here.

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