The Soil

One of my favorite scientists spoke at the Houston Museum of Natural Science this week and I couldn’t make it, so I caught up on some YouTube lectures of hers and am motivated to talk more about her work.

If you want to spend your precious time learning about a super sustainable way to grow things, and a bit about how things are currently done, you’re really weird (like me). Read on, and hopefully you’ll find the following links useful or interesting.

Dr. Elaine Ingham is a soil microbiologist who’s studied the way plants grow, and has found the soil to be the most critical component. Specifically, the “soil food web“. Instead of looking at whatever they look at in Monsanto headquarters, or wherever, she’s dug deeper (harhar) to find a whole network of microorganisms needed to feed our plants with what is already naturally available everywhere on earth. Apparently, this includes the driest of deserts, those parts of Houston that are scorched earth right now, halfway through our summer, and Mordor.

There are no nutrient shortages anywhere, she says, only a shortage of life in the soil. The soil is the middle-ground between dirt (or clay or sand or what-have-you) and fresh produce or greener yards. There are festivals of microorganisms in places like the forest floor in the photo (thank you Percival Baxter of Maine), and wherever we cultivate and feed them, like compost.

Mimicking the rules of nature with how we grow things has proven to be insanely successful in her fieldwork. She makes compost, adds it to the lot, then gets greener grass, greener pastures, and big crops of richer, tastier produce — all without chemicals and fertilizers. What she’s preaching is actually working, and is infinitely sustainable, cheaper, and easier.

Basically if she offered to adopt me now, I say yes please are you kidding me you’re amazing, Dr. Mom. I’m definitely a nerd for what she preaches.

Anyway, look her up! She has a lot of stuff on YouTube. “The Roots of Your Profits” is a great crash-course. 

Compost! (I love this video on that topic). If the plastic bins work for you, great. But for me, compost bins are one of the few things I actually like building out of old pallets. For placement, a spot that gets sun in the winter and shade in the summer has worked best for me. If it’s in a spot where rainwater will hit the pile, flow through, then run off like a quick batch of compost tea into a garden, shrubs or trees nearby, even better.

If you prefer something that delivers the gist of Ingham’s research in book form, Teaming with Microbes is another favorite. It’s the science you need to know for a green thumb, and written in a way that’s easy to digest.

One more thing. For a good visual of what is possible when you apply all of this to food production (with a healthy dose of permaculture and a savasana-friendly soundtrack), check out this really neat project in Kauai, HI. Rob Cruz presents some ideas here that seem to me like the next chapter of food production, when conventional agriculture runs out of steam (which seems inevitable).

If you have anything you’d like to add or ask about this, or a correction is called for, please share with me here or at