The best way to build healthy soil is by looking at how Nature maintains soil ecosystems in similar growing conditions and exploring ways to mimic the strategies used in our farms and gardens.

Let me explain by sharing a story… A few years back, some students and I compared the soil at Hill Top Farm with the soil across the road, where there was still forest.[1]

Under the forest canopy, the soil was what I wanted. It was easy to dig, had more earthworms, organic matter and soil aggregates. It was a light bulb moment for me – while I had been busy spreading gypsum, mulch, and compost every year to get these advantages – the forest had done it naturally!

Photo comparing soil at Hill Top Farm with soil formed under natural vegetationHill Top Farm (right) – with the big, heavy clods

Fast track forwards a few months, and I found another opportunity to compare soil, this time in a temperate climate, between an ancient woodland and adjoining arable field in England.

Historical records suggest the ancient woodland has never been cleared, whereas the field is likely to have been cultivated annually for decades. The woodland soil was crumbly and dark, indicating loads of organic matter, carbon and soil life. In the arable field, just 20 metres away, it was light coloured, had unbreakable clods, and was hard to dig!

photo comparing soil in an arable field with soil in a ancient woodland Compare the soil in the arable field (left) with the soil in the adjacent ancient woodland (right)

Some people say, “that’s all very well, but we won’t feed everyone by growing in ancient woodlands.”

But that’s not the point! What’s relevant is the eco-logic of mimicking the techniques Nature uses, and where possible, the architecture of the plant communities that would naturally grow on your land.

Compare the practices the woodland ecosystem uses to maintain a self-fertilising system with what happens in the arable field (see table below).[2]

Table showing comparision between soil management in an arable field and ancient woodlandSee the dramatic differences in this short video.

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Watch another comparison – soil in native grassland and adjacent arable field.[3]

Get Support with Building Healthy Soil

Recommended articles –

  1. What is Healthy Soil?
  2. How to Build Healthy Soil – Eco-logically
  3. How to reduce fertiliser Use
  4. What is Regenerative Farming and Gardening
  5. How to do Regenerative Farming and Gardening – Ecologically

Watch the videos in the playlist ‘Fix your Nutrient Cycling‘ on the Learning from Nature YouTube Channel.

Alternatively, develop practical solutions for your farm with this resource – 

Or garden with this resource –

References – Build Healthy Soil by Mimicking Nature

[1] Hill Top Farm is the education centre and demonstration farm for Learning from Nature. The farm is in the dry–wet tropics in north-eastern Australia.

[2] Wendy Seabrook, 2022, Eco-logical Farming Handbook, Publ Learning from Nature

[3] Colin Seis,2014, Pasture cropping and grazing management, North Central CMA

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