<aside> 💡 This section of the book is written to help me link what little I know about the soil ecoystem, to the way that I garden. It's ridiculously simplified and probably inaccurate in places, but it's been a useful exercise to try and write it, hopefully it will be for you to read it.


It suits my purposes to think of managing the soil in three ways:

  1. Regenerative perennial growing (we do a little of this)
  2. Conventional annual growing (we don't do this)
  3. Regenerative annual growing (most of what we do)

I won't cover regenerative perennial growing too much, because it's not really practical to eat a conventional fruit and vegetable diet that way in the UK. Although people with a lot of space and a different climate might have an exceptional, unconventional, diet from their 'food forest'.

This video (you can ignore the advert at the end) provides a nice summary of this chapter!

This video (you can ignore the advert at the end) provides a nice summary of this chapter!

I'm going to focus on the differences between conventional annual growing and regenerative annual growing. I'm going to resist describing particular growing systems like no-till, deep compost mulch, no-dig and organic because I don't follow any of them, but I incorporate ideas from all of them. I think all of them have a common core, they want to get closer to how natural systems operate, hence I'm calling my system 'regenerative annual growing'.

Regenerative perennial growing

Most natural systems are in balance and if they go out of balance for some reason, a new, different state of balance is usually quickly restored. This state of balance is nicely demonstrated by the fact that the plants in these systems get almost no external inputs, except water and air and yet they remain relatively healthy, over very long periods of time. They achieve this, not by drawing on infinite resources within the soil (there's no such thing) but by by eating their own decomposing annual growth.

In these natural systems there are also, usually, multiple plants growing in the same space. This mix of plants will typically draw water and nutrients from different levels of the soil and thrive at different times of year and in different intensities of light. Because they draw from different levels in the soil, their decomposing waste will deposit nutrients from those various soil levels on or near the surface of the soil, basically acting as a nutrient pump and mixing mechanism.

This cycle of: grow, drop, decompose, feed the soil, lets the soil feed new growth is a beautiful system. In 'regenerative annual growing', I take inspiration from this natural circular 'economy'. I only take inspiration from it though, it doesn't work for me as annual grower, because I break the cycle.

As a grower of annual veg, I extract a lot of produce from the system, that would otherwise have decomposed and fed the soil and I also disturb the soil to plant and harvest some crops. Without some changes, the system is no longer circular, it might not collapse completely, but it will either degrade, or find a new state of balance, that's sub-optimal for vegetable growing.

Such systems were the inspiration for the observation that in natural systems, decomposing plants feeds the soil and the soil feeds the plants. The soil is not a passive medium in such systems, it's a complex system in it's own right.

<aside> 💡 There are no fertilisers in natural systems, except the occasional contribution of animal dung. Although in some grassland environments, herds of animals roaming across the grass land might deposit a lot of dung on those occasions!


Conventional annual growing

As I'm using the term in this section of the book, conventional systems of annual vegetable growing, can be categorised by their use of artificial fertilisers and tillage. Such growers take a very different perspective on the soil. To varying degrees they see the soil just as a medium to hold water and nutrients, it's a passive rather than an active participant in the growing system.

The soil is tested to see which nutrients are available. The results of the test are compared with the needs of the plants and the difference between the two is added as fertiliser. In conventional systems, the nutrients that are added are not designed to feed the soil, but to feed the plants directly. The soils 'job', is just to retain those nutrients, to stop them being lost: floating away in the air, or washing away in the water.

Conventional hydroponic systems illustrate this approach to growing best. The medium is not soil, but water, the water has few accessible nutrients in it's own right. Most of the nutrients are added to the water and their levels are carefully monitored and maintained within optimum ranges, depending on the stage of the plants growth.

The water - the medium - has no part to play in the process, other than as a way to deliver the nutrients to the roots. In an even more extreme version of hydroponics, the plant roots are not even in water, they are just sprayed with water, which has nutrients in solution.

<aside> 💡 Exaggerating to emphasise the difference here: in conventional growing the soil is considered to be a passive medium, nutrients feed the plant directly, the soil has no active role to play, it's just wet dust.