It’s always good to start a new season and while we have respectable crops that will taste good, the plants are generally late, smaller and lack the vigour we expect at this time of year. As I walk the fields I’m not despondent but the grower in me is constantly asking, “why?”. The slow growth could be caused by low temperatures but I’m attributing the general lack of vigour to an ailing soil.
Organic farmers depend on the health of their soil, especially the communities of bacteria and fungi living around crop roots. Coupled with the activity of earthworms, these microbes are the stomach of the plant, breaking down organic matter to release the soluble nutrients our crops need to grow. There is also evidence that these symbiotic relationships help protect our crops from disease. Think about probiotics and the effect of antibiotics, a curry or too much beer on your gut and you’re getting the picture; no creature lives in isolation.
A healthy soil needs to breathe so its cavities (created largely by earthworm activity) must be open to allow the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. During last winter, the wettest in living memory, even our better drained soils were waterlogged for months. Suffocated like a patient struggling with pneumonia, many of the beneficial fungi and bacteria were replaced by species that thrive in anaerobic conditions. The soil takes on a foul sourness with the wrong microbes producing the wrong metabolites resulting in unhealthy plants.
It’s not a disaster; with drier conditions the good bugs will prevail, and I expect the later crops to be fine. However it has emphasised the importance of a living soil in time for the launch of our national earthworm survey, Riverford’s Big Worm Dig, designed with earthworm experts at the University of Central Lancashire. Children especially enjoy it so visit our website below for your free survey booklet.