Chard Week: Soil Health

When you hear that our beloved market garden grew twice as much chard than planned, your first thought might be “that’s a lot of chard,” or “I will cook mine with anchovies,”or “Locavore should organise some kind of Chard Week”.  Your second thought, however, will very likely be “why?”

Well, the weather most certainly played a part. The skill, expertise, and hard work of our growers undoubtedly had something to do with it, and there’s a certain measure of luck involved, too. But another, less obvious factor in how well plants grow is the health of the soil. And the soil at Locavore Left Field is doing quite well indeed. I’ve spent Chard Week learning more about what it means for soil to be healthy and why it’s made such a big difference to our farm, and I want to share my newfound knowledge with you.

Healthy soil is defined by several qualities. It can hold more water than less healthy soil, which helps prevent flooding, and means plants are less prone to suffer in hot, dry weather. It’s full of nutrients. It can hold more carbon. Perhaps most importantly, however, it’s full of life. Bacteria, worms, insects, and fungi all do better in healthy soil, and they all contribute in turn, protecting plants from pests and diseases, helping them access water and nutrients, or, in the case of worms, breaking down minerals, spreading organic matter, and helping with drainage. To prove that the soil on our farm is teeming with helpful microbes, we took part in the Soil Your Undies challenge, burying a pair of organic cotton pants for a month. You can see the results here– those microbes seem to have had a feast. 

So why is the farm’s soil so very chard-growing-ly, pants-dissolvingly healthy? The number one reason is that we farm organically. Avoiding pesticides and fertilisers means the soil can do its thing. Strict crop rotation means the soil is never stripped of any one nutrient or over-taxed; it’s always given time to recover. The farm produce their own compost, and also buy in organic compost to supplement, which help give nutrients back. 

Green manures, introduced to our farm last year, are also a massive part of improving the soil. These are cover crops of plants- usually nitrogen-fixing legumes, like clover, which are grown entirely or primarily for the benefit of the soil, as they help to, as our head grower Floortje says, “improve soil fertility, nutrient levels and organic matter, whilst also suppressing weeds”- they’re all-round market-garden superheroes. They’re grown when crops for eating aren’t being grown, and are harvested and composted, so they keep helping the soil then too.

Our farm is low-till, which means they try to disturb the soil as little as possible. Instead of heavy machinery, they do most jobs by hand, with their most-used tools being a broadfork, a French invention from the 1960s, and a wheel hoe- the first allows them to aerate the soil without disturbing it, and the second helps make weeding manageable. It’s harder work than using more equipment, but it pays off: the life in the soil isn’t disrupted, and it pays us back in, well, chard.

Intensive farming can be very damaging to the soil, which is one reason why some argue that, if current farming practices continue, we risk destroying our soil so badly that we won’t be able to grow crops any more within 60 years. This is a scary statistic, but it’s the kind of scary that should motivate us to push for change, not encourage us to hide under the bed. It’s totally possible to turn the tide on soil health, and our market garden is a proof. Healthy soil is also a massive carbon sink, as it contains so much organic matter, so taking care of our soil is also another way to help minimise climate change.  By supporting Locavore you’re helping us show the world that organic farming and seasonal eating can make a massive difference in all sorts of ways, and the health of the soil on our market garden is a huge part of that.

It’s really a bonus that the food healthy soil grows is plentiful and delicious, as it’s worth putting in the work to preserve our soil anyway. But it is delicious, and it is plentiful, and that’s what Chard Week is all about: celebrating this time of plenty, which we get as a side effect of farming in a way that not only does as little damage to the environment as possible, but also, in its small-scale way, improves it, and shows that improving it is possible.