Life in the Soil – Part IV

Dr. Ingham Answers Some Questions

Question: Are you suggesting that instead of tilling we should put proper biology into the soil?

Elaine Ingham: Exactly. Because we did not understand that tillage slowly but surely destroys life in the soil, on which crop production depends for good yields, we tried to use the quick fix approach. Of course, quick fixes seldom address the underlying problems. Tilling fluffs the soil and air is put back in that shallow band of soil. But deeper, where the tiller’s blades pushed down on the soil, the compaction gets worse. It takes time for the damage from each insult to soil’s health to build. The organisms that are not killed try to recover, but with time the constant damage from tillage does takes its toll. Eventually, when the damage to the soil’s life reaches the critical point, rain will cause compaction. And so, we think we have to till even more to get fluff back into the soil.

Quick fixes end up being exactly the wrong thing to do. People might put organic matter back in the soil and see perhaps some short-term benefit, but they do not stop tilling. Water sitting on a compacted layer tends to move downhill, and with no life holding the soil together, it moves with that water. This is known as erosion. Where there was once living soil, now has no living organisms to hold it in place or retain soluble nutrients. The soil moves with the water and becomes sediment.

Root systems coming into contact with the anaerobic layer will be killed by alcohol dissolving them or through a lack of usable nitrogen, phosphorus, or sulfur being lost because they were converted to anaerobic gases. Disease organisms grow well in anaerobic habitats, and thus attack any roots that grow into the area.

How do you fix this problem? Till deeper? No. Where will the compaction layer form? Till even deeper. How do you get rid of a compaction zone that is even deeper? Till even more deeply. That is exactly what we have done in modern agriculture.

Back in the early 1900s, we did moldboard plowing where the plowshare pushes down on the soil at about four to six inches. How do we break up compaction at four to six inches? The USDA developed chisel plows, which till down to one foot. How did we fix a compaction zone at 12 inches? Disc plows, which go to 18 inches. How can the plough pan5 at 18 inches be dealt with? Till the subsoil down to three feet. How do we get rid of compaction at three feet? Deep rip. Then compaction forms at four feet down into the soil. How can we deal with that? We do not have tractors large enough to pull a plow through compacted soil four feet deep. We are at the end of the mechanical approach to fixing the problem. Tillage is a quick fix. It does not in fact fix anything. It just keeps delaying the inevitable.

So, how can we get away from ever having to till again? Return the proper sets of organisms to the soil. If we must till once a year to put the seeds into the ground, then apply the organisms to the seeds, so when planted, the seeds already have organisms to heal the disturbed soil. However, leave the rest of the soil intact.

Think about what nature will do with bare, disturbed soil. If no beneficial sets of organisms are present and functioning, weeds will grow. Whatever weed seed is in your soil or that may blow in is what will grow there. But if we plant seeds for living mulch, which is permanent, short growing, and has the same biology needs as our crop plants, then the weeds will be outcompeted. The living mulch fulfills its function by preventing weeds and keeping the right food web happy and functioning in the soil.

When planting, it is best to either direct drill the crop into the living mulch or till a narrow strip out of the cover just wide enough to allow planting crop seeds. Then any need to deal with weeds is over. In the Shumei Garden that is part of our plan for the garden’s expansion.


There are several questions that need to be settled. For example, permanent understory6 plants need to be identified. We need to test them to make sure they survive in the gardens. We need to collect seeds of the ones that work. We need to match them to the crop or herb, or desired overstory7 plant we have been growing.

Jay Fuhrer in North Dakota has been working for the last 15 or more years to develop a mix of species, called a seed cocktail, that are all low growing. Some are nitrogen fixers, some are more fungal, some a little more on the bacterial side, and some well balanced fungal to bacterial. In the first year those seeds were planted, three species of plants came up and did a beautiful job of covering the soil. The crops were strip tilled into the soil and grew very well indeed, because the organisms were maintained and nurtured by the living mulch. It was not necessary in some cases to use compost. Some places did add compost to bring the soil back to a full set of soil organisms however. In the second year, different species of the original set of seeds grew, because of different weather conditions in the second summer. But in some cases, compost was not needed in the second year, because the plants maintained the proper biology.

Could we do this in Natural Agriculture? When crops are harvested, and the residues are on the surface of the soil, we want those residues to decompose rapidly. If the soil has good biology, the residues should decompose in a month. If they do not decompose, compost should be spread over the surface of the bed. That means that during the winter, under the snow, if the compost has beneficial organisms, the residues will decompose and improve the organisms in the soil.

The next spring, if any residues from the year before are still present, add compost on the soil surface to improve the life in the soil. Seed in ten spring germinating understory plants. Add living mulch and the plant seeds. Then watch to see which understory plants come up.

We could look at the organisms in the soil, and see if they are the balance we think is best for the crop. If they are not, more compost goes on the soil surface.

In Australia, where we work with growers on 300-acres plots, the growers returned life to the soil successfully. Their costs were reduced by $200,000 in the first year. So, minimizing tillage is important.

We may need think-groups to figure out the most effective ways to achieve this within the Natural Agriculture paradigm.

Q: We learned that food labeled organic might contain only1% organic produce. We look for labels that say “100% organic,” yet, still do not know whether to trust labeling. I wonder if there are any countries that do not use industrial chemicals in food production. I heard that China uses massive amounts and someone else told me that Mexico does not use chemicals at all. Is this true?

E.I: The answer depends on what aspect of agriculture you assess. Large industrial farms in Mexico are very chemically based. But with small farms of less than 10 acres the farmers do not have enough money to buy chemicals. So, Mexicans generally eat organic food. The food from the large industrial farms goes to the U.S., Europe, or Asia.

Many European countries have legislated that the farms in their country shift to organic production. Their goal is that all their farms will be organic by 2020. Why are we not doing this in the United States? Because the U.S. is pesticide central. When you understand how much control big business has of the United States government, you begin to understand the problem.

No matter where you are in the world, it is best to know the people and the farm that you buy your food from. This is true even in the world of organic farming. When I walk into most grocery stores that offer an organic section and look at the organic produce, I think, “Ewww! I would never buy this!” I expect that it is organic by substitution. All the growers have done is substitute Rotenone,8 which is allowed to be used on organic farms, for DDT. Although Rotenone is a natural product, in the high concentrations needed to kill insects, it is anything but natural.

So you have to know the person doing the organic growing. They have to have their heart in the right place and not use toxics that might be allowed in the organic world. Are we allowed in Shumei Natural Agriculture to use those toxic chemicals, even if they are natural products? The answer is no. If given a choice, would you choose Natural Agriculture or organic food? Again, know the person growing your food.

Q: You clearly state the advantages of biological over conventional farming. Could you tell us how long it would take the United States to convert to biological farming?

E.I: We could do most of this within a year because the first step is to make good compost. For us to rapidly convert, compost is job one. All the organic material going into landfills should instead be turned into good compost. Organic matter of any kind should not be allowed to putrefy into disgusting, stinky, horrible smelly dark slime.

The proper biology would have to be put into every acre. For example, in Australia they are already looking at making proper compost nationwide. If all of the arable land in Australia got compost put on it, we could keep in control all of the elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere within three years.

What if the United States did the same? How fast could global climate change be reversed? Consider that historic levels of organic matter in the Great Plains of the United States were at one time upwards of 15 to 25%. Today the Great Plains contains less than 1% organic matter. Elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere comes from where? It comes from burning petroleum. Can all of that CO2 in the atmosphere be put back into the soil as organic matter? Yes, we can do it, and we can do it rapidly.

But we must have the will to do it. We have to stop politicians from playing games and being greedy. The chemical companies need to stop protecting their sources of income at our expense.

Month after month, other scientists, many scientific journals, and people that I work with publish more and more papers concerning this. At a recent conference, my husband heard another speaker say that well over 1000 papers are published each year in the scientific literature that show that what I have been talking about for the last 30 years is true. Also, they show that what Natural Agriculture has been trying to do for the entire time it has been in existence is true.

More documentation, and more evidence gathering is the direction we need to be going in. All of you need to demonstrate that this approach to agriculture works.

Q: So, I am proud of my yard, which has all kinds of weeds growing in it. But you claim that with proper biology, weeds can be gotten rid of. How do you define weeds? To my understanding a weed is just a plant that is growing out of its proper place.

E.I: Plants growing out of place is the chemical company’s definition of weeds. Every plant on the planet is, sometime or another, from a human point of view, out of place. So, that means all plants are weeds—not a very useful definition.

Q: A vegetable growing on a golf course can be a weed?

E.I: An ecological definition of the term weed, would never include vegetables. However, from the chemical industry’s point of view, a vegetable could be a weed.

Let us go through a little history. In the early 1980s, a chemical company representative was sent out to ask people what they thought a weed was. That person noted that thistles, corn, and oak trees where considered by some to be weeds, and that some people could consider almost any kind of plant a weed. That is where the definition of a weed as a plant out of place developed. But it is not a useful definition. Who would be best served by that sort of definition of a weed? Herbicide salesmen, so they could sell you herbicides. So let us not fall into a trap meant to sell products that are not needed. You do not need these herbicides if you understand which organisms you should use to prevent weed growth in the soil.

An ecological definition of weeds is what is useful. Weeds grow in conditions where serious disturbances have occurred. Weeds require very high levels of bacteria, and almost no beneficial fungi. Protozoa should be present, but their numbers fluctuate wildly. Highly bacterial soils result in large pulses of nitrates, followed by almost no nutrient availability. Very low levels of ammonium, and either alkaline conditions or very acidic conditions are typical of conditions that set the stage to grow weeds. Weeds tolerate poor soil structure.

When fungi begin to be an important part of the soil food web, ammonium becomes a significant pool in the soil, inhibiting the growth of weeds.

Weedy species grow very rapidly, take over, and try to rule for a short time. Because their purpose in life is to suck up all the nutrients, turn it into billions of seeds that then disseminate everywhere, weedy species such as thistles, Johnson grass, and nutsedge9 are wide dispersing plants and have very rapid growth and production rates. Corn and vegetables are not weeds because they do not grow that fast, they need more than just nitrate as a source of inorganic, soluble nitrogen. They do not produce a huge number of seeds that disperse wide and far. They do not do well in soil that is compacted close to the surface. Most mid-successional plants can put their roots down several feet or more, and thus are clearly, not weeds. Plants that make tap roots can be considered one step further along in succession, possibly because they try to break through the compaction layer and help move soil to the next stage faster than true weeds.

Corn and vegetables might be classified as volunteers, in that if you grow corn one year, the next year when you grow soybeans, corn will volunteer in the soybean field. But being a volunteer type plant does not make it a weed.

Weeds require a disturbance of the soil. The soil might have been compacted and is likely to be anaerobic, requiring high nitrate pulses. It might be a highly bacterial-dominated soil with almost no fungi. Weeds have rapid growth and produce lots of seeds.

Q: Can a garden or farm free of weeds still have healthy and good quality soil?

E.I: Actually, no weeds and healthy soil go hand in hand. But think of this in another way. We could also define a healthy weed soil, because if the soil grows weeds really well, then is it not a healthy soil for weeds?

However, most of us do not want this kind of soil. Most of us want a good healthy soil that is going to grow tomatoes, mustard, cabbage, kale, potatoes, zucchini, carrots, blueberries, and maple trees. We should know what our different plants need, so that we can grow a specific plant in the healthiest soil for that plant’s species.

What is the biology in the soil where strawberry naturally exists? What is in healthy strawberry soil? Consider what kind of system strawberries grow in naturally. Where do strawberries grow in nature? They are understory species in forests. The proper biology to help strawberries grow without disease, pests, or fertility problems is five times more fungi than bacteria on up to a 100 times more fungi than bacteria.


Now, let us consider how a conventional strawberry field is prepared? First, methyl bromide is applied to the field to kill the diseases, pests, and weeds that have gotten out of hand in conventional soils. However, strawberries growing in sterile dirt suffer from disease. The lack of soil structure, the lack of oxygen and water does not allow their roots to move deep into the soil. And, there is a lack of nutrient cycling, so the plants suffer from nutrient limitations. Healthy strawberry soil needs to be fungal-dominated, with at least 300 micrograms of bacteria, 50,000 protozoa, and a few beneficial nematodes. With unhealthy conditions, the strawberries produced generally have a poor flavor. Who benefits from this sterile dirt approach to growing plants? Those who sell inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides.

How can we fix the soil when using the Natural Agriculture approach? First, do not kill the life in the soil by using toxic chemicals like inorganic fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Second, enhance the diversity of organisms by planting the same plant species in the same soil to always increase and improve the organisms the plant needs. Let the plant choose exactly what soil organisms to feed on and increase that soil organism. Use composted plant material from your garden to constantly put back the full diversity of life that is needed. We need to stop killing soil life and start enhancing diversity of the beneficial organisms. If we know what needs to be done to improve things, we can make Natural Agriculture even more successful.

Q: Do you have to test the soil to determine what nutrients are needed? What plants would be used to help revitalize the soil?

E.I: You do not need to do a chemistry test because all agricultural soils have the needed nutrients in them to grow plants. Everything except carbon dioxide, sunlight energy, and nitrogen are in the soil. If there is a fertility problem, what is lacking is the correct set of soil organisms to do nutrient cycling.

If a plant does not have enough boron,10 what is to be done to fix that problem? Pump exudates—cake and cookies—into the root system to feed precisely those bacteria or fungi that solubilize boron straight from the rocks, pebbles, sand, silt, clay, or organic matter. Those bacteria and fungi hold that boron in their biomass. Protozoa, nematodes, microarthropods, and earthworms then consume those bacteria and fungi, and release the boron in a chelated form so that your plant can say, “Thank you! I got the nutrients I needed!”

So testing for soluble, inorganic nutrients is not the testing that we need to do. The testing that we really need is finding out whether we have the adequate biology in our soil. If you always add good aerobic compost every so often, then you might not even need to do that testing. Or, why not get a microscope or encourage someone in your neighborhood to do the microscopic work?

To sample your soil or compost, take a number of small samples from the area you want to know about. Mix that composite sample, then remove one teaspoon and dilute it with four teaspoons of water, gently shake the soil/water mix, put a drop of that on a microscope slide, put a cover slip over that drop and then look through the microscope. Right away you should be able to see if you have life in the soil or not. If not, then get good compost, and apply those organisms to the soil. Does the soil or compost have the right balance? You can see for yourself.

Q: I heard that you were the one that revived all the trees and lawns in New York City that were covered by dust and ash after September 11. How you did this?

E.I: I was working with the Park Conservancy in New York City when 9/11 occurred. We had already started the people at the Conservancy on the process of making their own compost and making all their own liquid extracts from the compost. So, they had already been applying all this good biology and the soil was already in good shape when 9/11 happened. There was a gradient from the site of the World Trade Center that stretched out to the tip of Manhattan. The debris covering the plants ranged from somewhere around 45 feet deep to only about three inches deep at the end of the island.

Everything was impacted by the debris and salts, which were calcium carbonate (lime) and calcium sulfate (gypsum). It started to rain not long after 9/11, and all that salt started to move into the soil. The number of trees in the area that were not killed by bulldozers taking them out so that debris could be removed numbered around 6,000. And the salt negatively impacted all of them.

Conventional wisdom would have had us cut down all those trees, replace all the grass, and replace all the flower beds, because there was no way to rescue them. But because we had been working with the Park Conservancy, and specifically with T. Fleischer of the Conservancy, he said, “Don’t touch those plants. We will bring them back.” With applications of the right biology, in other words compost, compost tea, and extracts, all except six out of the 6,000 trees were resuscitated and brought back to health.


If you go to Battery Park City at the end of Manhattan Island, to Rockefeller Plaza, then to the street trees in that area where the World Trade Centers used to be, you will see healthy, mature trees. Everything was brought back with no toxic chemicals at all.

The Irish Famine Memorial was buried in the debris from the World Trade Center and all of it was rescued without using chemicals. There was no need to replace any of the plant material. Adirondacks Park also was resuscitated by these methods. It is important to understand that the plants in these specific areas required soil organisms that were specific to those plants. Compost needed to be made from material from the Irish Famine Memorial to maintain those plant species. In the Adirondacks Park, compost was made from that plant material. It is important to have indigenous material to make compost. Is not this also a principle of Natural Agriculture?

So yes, we were capable of bringing back all of the plant life, not just the trees but all of the plants, without having to take out and replant all of Battery Park City, the Rockefeller Plaza, the street trees, and so forth. Most likely it would have taken years to replace the vegetation in this large area if conventional wisdom had held the upper hand.

Q: You tell us the same thing about crop rotation as those who practice Natural Agriculture; it is not that good and continuous cropping makes more sense. It makes sense because it helps bring a field to the ideal state for growing a particular crop. However, natural disasters such as severe storms and droughts can retard the soil’s advancement toward an ideal state or even reversing the process.

Within Natural Agriculture there is another component to creating an ideal relationship between plant and soil: the seed. Seeds are kept from a harvest and used in the next planting season. This is done because, throughout the years, seeds adapt to the soil. This practice seems to insolate Natural Agriculture’s crops from most of the damage caused by natural disasters. The crops that grow year after year from such seeds seem more drought and flood resistant than their counterparts grown by conventional methods. Do you have any thoughts concerning this aspect of Natural Agriculture?

E.I: Locally adapted seed is really important because the other choice is going to the store and buying someone else’s seeds from whatever soil it has adapted to. Maybe it was adapted to the soil of Alaska or Mexico or someplace else. So you are more likely to have problems getting this new and different seed to do well in your bed.

If we save our own seed, we know what conditions the seed was raised in. All plants put out specific exudates and improve the set of organisms that helps the plant. The more we maintain the seed that was harvested from that site, the better the relationship gets to be with the biology in the soil. That is very important.

If there is bad weather, if a disturbance occurs, the specific biology the plant needs might be destroyed. In that case, we might want to try to bring back the life that was benefitting our plants instead of having to wait for the whole process to occur all over again. Maybe we could return the soil to that really good condition more rapidly if we have compost ready that has the same biology that needs to be put back in the soil.

Q: What if we do not add anything to the damaged soil, because it has the resilience to create the same conditions again? Do you think that by not adding anything succession will take place gradually, within a few years, reaching the same level it was before the soil was damaged? You say that by applying compost, the process speeds up. But if you do nothing, the soil will still follow the same succession. I think that is what many people working in Natural Agriculture have been doing. Some Natural Agriculture farmers do put compost to cover crops and others do not.

E.I: I would like to know when it is not necessary to do anything, and when something has to be done. Do we need to do something to help move things toward an improved condition for our plants, or will existing processes get things back to that point without our help? Can growers depend on natural processes to get back to the best conditions fast enough? We need the ability to assess biology in soil, so we will be able to answer that. The question is when can we rely on natural processes and when will the soil need help?

Q: In Natural Agriculture we observe Nature and learn from her. That is basically what Natural Agriculture is. You do your observing with a microscope, we only use our eyes. Your method is more scientific, ours more of an art. Do you think that science eventually will prove that Natural Agriculture works?

E.I: Yes, this science proves Natural Agriculture works. Now, how does Shumei want to use this knowledge? I think this will lead to some very interesting further discussions.


5. A hardpan or plough pan is a hard layer of compacted subsoil or clay that forms in agricultural fields by plowing at the same depth every year.

6. The term understory refers to an underlying tier of vegetation, such as shrubs and small trees, that grow under the canopy of a forest’s taller trees.

7. The term overstory refers to the uppermost layer of foliage that forms a forest canopy. Both understory and overstory are terms that are now used not only in the field of forestry but also in agroforestry, which involves the cultivation and use of trees in farming and many forms of integrated land management.

8. Rotenone is an odorless, colorless, crystalline chemical compound that is used as a broad range insecticide and pesticide. It is naturally generated in the seeds and stems of many plants.

9. Nutsedge or nutgrass is a perennial weed, a member of the sedge family that superficially resembles grass. Varieties of nutsedge are aggressive and tenacious weeds that commonly infest vegetable and flower gardens, and home landscapes and lawns.

10. Boron is one of seven essential micronutrients vital to fertilization, fruit and seed production. Boron deficiency is the most widespread of all crop deficiencies, affecting almost all major crops grown around the world.

Part I
Part II
Part III

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