Holistic Soil Is Critical To Ecosystem Garden Design

A healthy growing space needs healthy dirt, and an understanding of holistic soil (and how to maintain it) is key to healthy, productive gardens.

by Zach Loeks
PHOTO: Goumbik/Pixabay

All terrestrial ecosystems are deeply connected to their soil. And this soil is alive! 

When designing an ecosystem-inspired growing space, we strive for what’s called holistic soil. The term holistic soil refers to a soil that has a balance of mineral material, organic matter and pore space for air and water. 

Indeed, an ideal soil composition is about 45 percent mineral and 5 percent organic matter, then 25 percent air and 25 percent water.  This means 50 percent of the soil is pore space—air and water openings in the soil. 

These macro pores and micro pores (as they can be classified) help to keep the soil hydrated and aerated. This, of course, helps plants survive, providing drainage in major storms and oxygen for decomposition of organic matter.  

Read more: Use ecosystem design principles to improve your garden.

Cities Underfoot

However, and of the upmost importance, is the fact that a holistic, well-balanced soil helps sustain soil life.

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Within the soil, there exists a whole micro ecosystem of organisms. You can find everything from bacteria that fix nitrogen from the atmosphere to mycorrhizal fungi that share resources with plants. You can even spot arthropods that help shred and decompose organic leaf litter into more soluble and plant-available nutrients. 

Soil is like a city with many pathways of transport, communication, plumbing and electricity. You can extend the metaphor to spot houses and places of work!

Read more: An ecosystem garden offers tons of benefits to the grower!

Design Healthy Soil

We can support a healthy structure to the soil in our garden with a few tried-and-true practices:

  • avoid compaction
  • provide protection over the winter through cover cropping
  • regularly add organic matter

When we perform these simple steps, our “soil society” thrives and provides support for the plants we want to grow. Natural ecosystems have thriving soil life. Our garden should also contain this life!

When we use apply sustainable garden practices in our gardens and yards, we maximize the benefits of wild ecosystems. Our soil health improves dramatically, as does its ability to fix, store, cycle and release nutrients and water to our garden plants. 

This creates gardens that are more drought resistant and better able to self-regulate for improved fertility. This also creates healthier, more pest-resistant plants.  

(Fun fact: A plant that is healthy and can easily acquire the nutrients it needs to grow vigorously will more quickly develop strong shields made of lipids in their leaves. This adds defense against chewing insects like flea beetles.)

Ecosystems are biodiverse and full of site-suitable plants. Their layered forms constantly build overall potential, such as dynamic holistic soil rich in organic matter and teaming with life. 

Ecosystem design, and all the benefits it provides now and into the future, can start with simply integrating layered diversity into our yards and protecting and enhancing the soil. 

No matter the scale, Ecosystem Design brings modern garden and property management and natural ecological principles together.  

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