The Ground Needs Resting Myth is Actually Harmful To The Soil. Soil Never Needs Resting & A Fallow Can Damage The Soil‘s Microfauna.
So often I hear people saying the ground needs resting between crops. I’m not sure why they think this. There’s no evidence that properly managed soil needs resting. Perhaps it is a story that’s been passed down for centuries and has just entered folklore.
It probably comes from the fact that before we had artificial fertilisers, and understood soils, composts and crops better, soil would sometimes become depleted of nutrients or “exhausted”. It would happen where successive crops were harvested and no nutrients organic matter was returned to the soil. And it could happen where pests and diseases were allowed to build up.
I believe properly managed soil never needs resting. I believe it’s another gardening myth. but lets look at the argument why we should rest the land.
The Argument For Resting the Soil
I’ve just researched the arguments for resting the soil and am trying to understand why people believe them.
One popular reason given is as follows.
The Soil Needs Replenishing
Proponents of the argument say that soil becomes exhausted when we keep cropping it. To an extent I can see this argument, though I’d say this only happens if you don’t add fertiliser or manure/compost.
They then conclude that if the soil is rested essential plant feed such as potassium and phosphorus will rise to the soil surface and be replenished. How they think this happens mystifies me. Natural conditions such as rain would surely wash these elements down into the water-table, NOT allow them to rise. There is no scientifically known way that these elements just rise out from the soil depths. They are absorbed onto soil particles in most cases. They can’t just catch a lift to the surface unless transported within a growing plant. Eg from roots to foliage.
The way to bring things like potassium, phosphorus and other essential elements for the depths is to allow plant roots to penetrate deep and retrieve them. Plants can bring elements to the surface. And plants such as legumes can fix nitrogen and revitalise the soil. But it needs plants, manure or fertiliser to increase fertility. Not having anything growing, is not going to do it.
So by all means grow legumes such a peas or beans on your land to increase nitrogen levels. And grow deep rooted crops to pull elements from deeper in the soil. But this isn’t resting the soil. It’s making the soil work for you.
Properly Managed Land Is Fertile
In a properly managed system there is no need to rest soil. And in nature, where nutrients and organic matter is naturally recycled the fertility often increases and vegetation become more abundant. Take the example I frequently refer to, the Amazon jungle. Where humans aren’t interfering the jungle doesn’t take a rest. It just keeps growing, century after century. And what happens is wonderful. Over the centuries abundance grows. More species put down roots and animal species also increase as fertility improves.
When mankind first started to farm the jungle they adopted a slash and burn approach to farming. The jungle was cut down and burnt via the slash and burn system. The ash etc fed crops for a few years and then the soil became exhausted and nothing would grow. The soil then needed resting to regrow their natural vegetation. !
It was the same in the Middle Ages in the UK. The land was harvested for a few years without any organic matter being recycled. The soil became exhausted and crops then failed. The land was abandoned and “rested”. Nature took over for a while.
High Fertility Natural Systems
The plains, grasslands and savannahs of Africa are some of the most abundant land on earth. They contain more animals per unit area than anywhere else on earth. And the land doesn’t need resting.
The reason it doesn’t need resting is because nature is in balance. The land is not being stripped of its nutrients and organic matter. Grass grows, animals eat it, those animals are sometime predated and also eaten. But sooner or later every all the nutrients and organic matter is returned to the soil. It’s a perpetual system that leads to abundance.
Grab And Run Agriculture .. & Gardening
Contrast the African plains with modern farming where crops are removed and the nutrients and organic waste is not all returned to the soil. Over the years fertility drops and so does production. It’s reminiscent of slash and burn but just takes longer.
And what happens to the waste that should be returned to the land? It goes into landfill and our sewers. Little is returned to the land.
Gardens and allotments can resemble modern farming if we do not return the goodness to it. If we repeatedly harvest crops and take them away we are destroying the natural recycling process. The soil then becomes impoverished and will eventually need resting.
What we need to do is ensure we return organic matter and nutrients to the soil. We need to compost as much waste as we can and return it to our soil. We need to build fertility, just like nature does. If we do that then soil never needs resting. Resting is a myth.
Soil needs to be active and growing to maintain the soil microfauna, which is essential to soil fertility. This is the argument given by permaculture and regenerative agriculture followers. I didn’t understand the science behind this a few decades ago. the science wasn’t certain. Today it is a well researched area of science and I have no doubts.
The more we put back in to the soil the more it will grow and feed us!
PS. For all those that say our gardens aren’t the same as the Amazon or savannah, I do of course understand that but use it to illustrate natural systems on which gardens and allotments can be based.
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