February 14, 2020

Book Review: A Soil Owner's Manual

About a year and a half ago, I enthusiastically started a series of blog posts on soil building. Dan and I had just found several video series by regenerative farmer Gabe Brown and agronomist Ray Archuleta. That was the beginning of a completely new phase of homesteading for us because it offered solutions to problems we were having. Since that time I've gleaned more bits and pieces of information, but it wasn't until now that I've finally been able to connect all the dots and see the big picture. And this is the book that did that for me.

by Jon Stika

It's not a very big book, only 88 pages, but it lays out the principles of improving soil health and their application clearly, logically, and to the point. No fluff, just facts.

Chapter 1: What is Soil Health and Why Should I Care?

As a lifelong organic gardener, I thought I had a handle on soil health. What I didn't realize was that, even though organic gardening is an improvement over industrialized chemical farming, it still follows the wrong paradigm. This chapter helps the reader understand nature's paradigm by explaining the five functions of the soil, why we don't need to feed the soil, and why a new fundamental understanding of soil is needed. 

Chapter 2: What's Wrong With My Soil the Way It Is? 

Explains why most soil in the United States (and the world) is dysfunctional. Explains how tilling the soil damages the soil ecosystem. 

Chapter 3: How Is Healthy Soil Supposed to Function?

We're all familiar with dysfunctional soil. The problem is that it is so familiar, that its dysfunctional state is now considered "normal." For example, my highly deficient compact red clay soil is considered normal for the southeastern U.S. This chapter explains why that is a fallacy. It defines healthy soil by describing properly functioning soil. Discusses water cycling, nutrient cycling, physical support, and biodiversity.

Chapter 4: Biology of the Soil

This quote from chapter 4 says it better than I could, "Soil microbiologists have determined that roughly 90% of the functions we expect soil to perform are biologically driven . . . Appreciating soil biology and all that it does is essential to improving soil health and becoming an economically and environmentally sustainable producer." Clue: soil biology is not just about earthworms! This chapter defines the Soil Food Web (SFW), describes the inhabitants that populate this web, how they function, and how they are fed.

Chapter 5: How Do I Restore the Health of My Soil?

"If the soil is managed with an understanding of the habitat requirements for the SFW, the capacity of the soil to function can be restored." This chapter details the keys to restoring soil health and how to make them work for you. I now understand why I have weeds! And I now know what to do about them. Also explains how the carbon:nitrogen ratio of cover crops and mulch affects soil microorganisms. Very useful information. Includes specifics for tailoring the principles of healthy soil to crop land, hay growing, pasture, rangeland, woodlands, and your yard, garden, orchard, or vineyard. 

Chapter 6: Goals and Tools

Explains how understanding healthy, fully functional soil can help you choose the best tools and equipment to meet your goals. 

Chapter 7: How Will I Know If My Soil Health is Improving?

This is an important question! Explains three simple, easy-to-do tests to get you started and help you monitor progress. Also discusses more sophisticated lab tests that can help measure the state of the soil's biologic activity. 

The book includes an appendix listing useful soil resources and a chart of the carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratios of soil mulches and cover crops. Explains how to choose these based on your goals. A glossary and bibliography complete the book. 

The only thing that's missing is an index. I have a paperback copy, so no search feature. But this is the kind of book I will search through and refer to often. Even so, it's definitely a 5-star addition to any homesteader's, gardener's, rancher's, or farmer's home library.

You can find A Soil Owner's Manual at Amazon or your favorite book seller. It's available in paperback, Kindle, and audiobook. You can follow that link for a "Look Inside."


Cockeyed Jo said...

So have we been doing it wrong all these years?

Leigh said...

Jo, I think we've just been missing some information, or at least I have. I thought I was knowledgeable and my garden did okay, but I was pretty convinced about my techniques and gardens tend to be pretty work intensive anyway. Trying to grow field crops, hay, and pasture has been more challenging (and more frustrating) so that's why we were looking for answers. I was approaching soil with a view to its chemistry (pH, mineral nutrients, etc.) Now, I'm understanding that I need to focus on its biology. We've been stumbling in this direction for the past couple of years, but Jon's book has put all the puzzle pieces together for me. Highly recommend!

Sam I Am...... said...

This sounds like a wonderful resource! What is C:N stand for?

Leigh said...

Sam, thank you for asking that! It stands for the ratio of carbon to nitrogen. I'll amend my blog post to explain that.

Retired Knitter said...

Just imagine, there probably was a time when you didn't need a book to keep the soil healthy. A time when the earth just did it thing and no one had to manage it. And then man arrived ... There is a pattern here!

Boud said...

Ruth Stout used to be a proponent of salt hay in vegetable gardens, never tilling. She also used to say tilling is destructive. So it sounds as if she was in tune with this writer.

I also liked her lack of dogmatism. She'd say this is how I do it, not saying it's how to do it!

Ed said...

On our farm, we started implementing soil improvement practices since the early 80's. Mostly we started off with preservation but then it got into increasing biomass and reducing chemical applications. Although I couldn't point out a healthier soil between any two years, I do know that if I could hold up a spade full of dirt from the 80's compared to what is there now, there would be a world of difference. It is a long term game but one that I know pays off with great results.

Leigh said...

RT, I've heard it said that the only creatures that are out of kilter with their true purpose is humans. Human nature wants to suit itself, rather than submit to the natural order of things. We can all see the results of that!

Boud, Ruth Stout was one of my first gardening heros. I've never tried her exact method, but it's stuck with me and now science backs her up. Pretty amazing.

Ed, that's so encouraging to read. It's frustrating because the process is so slow, but bit by bit improvements are made. Jon Stika encourages in his book to have faith in nature and in the process. If we just cooperate, eventually we will see the results.

Hill Top Post said...

I must go back over this and take notes. I really need to build some good rich soil. Thanks!

Leigh said...

Mary, building good soil is a worthy goal!

wyomingheart said...

Having retired from building sports fields in Florida, I wish this resource would have been within my reach. It all starts with healthy soil, and I will be using this resource to get our hay fields producing. Thanks for giving us this information.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, thanks for the recommendation! Comports with Masanobu Fukuoka's point of view, as he also recommended no till.

Leigh said...

Wyomingheart, we've been working in that direction with our hay fields for going on two years. It takes some time for the soil biology to establish itself, but I have to say that what's growing now looks greener and fuller than ever before. I was so glad to find this book because it helped me put it all together. I know you'll find it interesting and helpful.

TB, Masanobu Fukuoka's The One-Straw Revolution was the first book I read on this subject, and that book got us started on the right direction with our pastures. Everything that's followed has been a confirmation! Very glad for both books.

Chris said...

So glad you came across such a resource, as soil is the basis for all life. Well, water and soil to be more precise. I know from my own experience, soil requires an omnivorous diet. Meaning, plant-only systems, even a diversely planted area, will never have as healthy soil, as those integrated with animals at select times of the growing cycle.

I know this, because as soon as my edible plants experience an extreme in climate or pest loads, my plant-only systems are the first to succumb. I never get a yield to eat. Land which has integrated animals however, is more resilient. Whether they're taking care of your pest-loads, by eating them, or breaking the pest-load cycle of plants, by diversifying microbes with their manure - I've always managed a crop from where I've integrated animals. And that matters a whole bunch, when you're constantly growing food in extremes.

So naturally, I'm really excited you've found a resource which delves into the "systems" of feeding your soil.

Leigh said...

Chris, what I'm learning is that the healthier the soil, but better it retains that water. It all boils down to soil biology. The science behind it is fascinating.

Your observation about integrating animals with plants is interesting, and confirms some things that the book talks about. Biting the leaves stimulates the plant to become more vigorous. Gabe Brown's videos have documented that as well, and his charts comparing the management of cropland with and without livestock is compelling. And why not? Animals are part of any natural ecosystem.

Cockeyed Jo said...

Leigh, Considering we only have an 1/8 of a garden that we sow vegetables in, in 2018 I et our self sufficient goal in three vegetables isn't just doing okay, it's great. In fact those same vegetables are still feeding us (2 of 3 met goal vegetables)today with the garden fail last year. Our fairly new orchard area will be half taken over by chickens, but that's okay too. The chickens will tear up the soil and fertilize it until we can shift their runs in the opposite direction in two years so we can plant it.

Leigh said...

Jo, that's an excellent approach. Starting out with realistic goals is the best road to success. "By the inch it's a cinch. By the yard it's hard."

Observation and scientific research are confirming that animal impact on the soil is key to faster soil health. Makes it easier on us humans too!