I was astounded when I first discovered that it was possible to grow food with less fertiliser.

It’s difficult to appreciate what we can achieve as virtually all of us grow food in soil that no longer functions properly. Our soils may not show the customary signs of soil degradation: salinity, erosion, and compaction. Nevertheless, they are degraded because they lack:

  1. Functioning nutrient recycling systems
  2. Sufficient organic matter
  3. Soil structures promoting root growth and biodiverse communities of soil organisms
  4. Sufficient microbes and organic matter to release nutrients locked in mineral particles in the soil

Consequently, it’s become the norm to substitute for these free ecological services by cultivating soil, applying compost, synthetic and biological fertilisers. Virtually everybody does it.

“I can honestly say I have never ever been on a [farming] operation that is not degraded, including my own” Gabe Brown.

We can get a sense of the services our soils can provide by looking at the land managed by a small number of farmers and gardeners around the world who either benefit from growing food using traditional practices maintaining functioning ecosystems or have got their soil ecosystems up and running again!

We can also look to the past.

In Australia, Sir Paul Edmund Strzelecki surveyed soils in the southeast of the continent between 1839 – 1843; during the early settlement period. He found organic matter levels were around 5 – 10 times higher than in many soils today[1].

According to Bill Gammage, the author of ‘The Biggest Estate on Earth’, these findings are consistent with the writings of many early settlers.

“The earth has changed. Topsoil blows away, hills slip, gullies scour, silt chokes, salt spreads, soil compacts. Much of 1788’s soil was soft enough to push a finger into – naturally soft”

“Around Clermont (Queensland) the soil was exceedingly friable and rich; being unstocked and therefore untrodden, it was ‘ashy’, and the horses traveled over their fetlocks in the loose soil.”

The ground was soft, spongy and very absorbent. One inch of rain in spring and autumn, produced a luxurious growth of fresh green grass.”

Bill’s book is an impressive achievement. Bringing together extensive research into the historical records.

Reading his book you realise that the picture of Australian soils as “soft, spongy and absorbent” was not a story conjured up by a few romantic explorers. The number and similarities in the reports are too convincing, and the soil organic matter levels in Strzelecki’s reports back this up.

What’s the way forward?

It’s quite simple really! Stop doing the things that we know damage our soil and start using regenerative practices to get our soil ecosystems functioning again.

Find out how to reduce your fertiliser use by getting your soil ecosystem functioning again with our publication – Feed your Plants without Fertilisers.






References for Reducing Fertilisers

[1] Christine Jones ‘Soil Carbon – can it save agriculture’s bacon?’

[2] Original concept – Roger R.B. Leakey – Twelve Principles for Better Food and More Food from Mature Perennial Agroecosystems. Perennial crops for food security. Proc FAO expert workshop

Lead illustration © Laura Quincy Jones lauraquincyjones.com.

    6 replies to "How to Grow Food with less Fertiliser"

    • Eric van Beurden

      Yep! The message that we dont need any fertilizers was really astounding…but on reflection maybe not that surprising in view of how fertile our soil were pre over-use! The really amazing thing is to find out how fast it can bounce back if we simply support its natural processes. Thanks Wendy for bringing all this to our attention.

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Thanks, Eric. Yes, as you say it’s all about supporting and even fast-tracking natural processes.

    • G.Jones

      well as he doesn’t actually say how he is doing it I will continue spreading Alpaca Poo liberally over my croping ground. It has for the first time allowed me to grow beetroot and parsnips in good quantities.But apart from some bracken mulch that is the only additive We are in Aberdeenshire Scotland at 200m on a N facing slope. Short summers long winters add to the cover crop challenge.

      • Wendy Seabrook

        Hi Genevieve
        Great to hear from you. Did you see the previous video? It explains how Gabe Brown does it – https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/fertilizers/#more-3560. Getting our soil food web healthy again is the key. As the Soil Scientist Elaine Ingham states “There is no soil on this planet that lacks the nutrients to grow plants. What we’re lacking is the micro organisms to change the nutrients which are there into a form that your plant can use”.

    • ardhendu sekhar chatterjee

      thanks for drawing attention to the fundamental issues of maintaining soil fertility

      • Wendy Seabrook

        My pleasure Ardhendu. There are other great resources for you on the Learning from Nature YouTube Channel – Making our Soils healthy again. You can also get all our FREE information by subscribing here – https://www.learningfromnature.com.au/op/index.php/subscribe-yt/.
        Have fun exploring this new ecological approach getting our soils functioning again and saving money on fertilisers!

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