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Æ : Example - Soil Building through Cover Cropping

How to build soil and encourage life by working with natural processes

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Building soil and kickstarting the upward cycle of life in a degraded system is something of a 'dark art'. There is a lot of information out there on the internet, a lot of people taking about it - and just as many theories about what's most important and how to do this. Many of them are worth listening to (as there is no 'one way'), and most of them have something very valuable to offer on (at least one aspect of) stewarding the regeneration of living systems in landscapes. The approach that we use however is one that takes the best from science, best practice (as shared by other practitioners around the world) mixed together with experimentation and experience.

As illustrated in the above graphic, we worked (in partnership with
Soil Connection), to regenerate some grazing paddocks on this beef farm in Northland, Aotearoa - achieving a really positive result in only 35 days. The compacted clay soils on this farm - prone to drying and cracking in summer and pugging in winter - are heavily dominated by Kikuyu grass (Pennisetum clandestinum). While considered a useful species by some in establishing ground cover in tough/hardy poor conditions and offering some (albeit not optimal) nutritional value to livestock, this species is also famously vigorous (i.e. can be invasive) in the warmer months. In terms of building soil however it is very poor - due mainly to it's growth form which results in the vast majority of it's energy being put into rhizomes (root-like stem growth) that travel across the soil surface (or shallow underground) providing cover, but little in the way of soil building - either physically through root penetration or in terms of feeding a diverse community of microbes in the soil.

In order to improve landscape function, build resilience to drought and increase the diversity, abundance and health of living plants we put together a plan for turning the system around. The overall approach taken here was one of using plants as tools (or partners - if you prefer) to change the physical conditions above and below the soil surface through thier effects on moisture retention & infiltration, maximising photosynthesis and nurturing a more diverse microbial community around the root zone. In this case we achieved this through the use of 'cover cropping' (planting annual plant species to cover the ground) as a transitional tool towards a highly diverse perennial pasture mix.
By understanding the ecological forces at work, and the implications of using different techniques we were able to put together an effective plan for how to use life to facilitate more life - without needing to resort to synthetic chemicals / poisons / 'novel chemistry'.
In this instance we were really pleased with what we were able to achieve in such a short time, using only carefully planned disturbance, biostimulants and a tailored mix of plants selected especially to do the jobs we needed. The driving force behind this whole approach is to harness photosynthesis in as powerful way as possible. Plants are the basis of terrestrial ecosystems and it's important to get that working as they are capable of doing some seriously heavy lifting in terms of building soil, in fact it's really the only way to do it.

While each situation and contact is different, (and it doesn't always get this good a result this quickly) it's worth sharing this example of what is achievable when a good plan is well executed and things go your way!

If you're interested in working with us to turns things around on your landscape, feel free to get in touch.