Anyone that owns property is potentially in charge of billions of helpers.
These little guys break down organic matter and exchange nutrients with plants. The plant’s root system offers a gooey area that provides minerals and nutrients that the bacteria want. To get them, the bacteria have to exchange something in return to release the ionic bond holding the nutrient to the plant. Some plants encourage bacteria that make nitrogen available to the soil for example.
Bacteria don’t move around in the soil easily. They need goop to get around. They make sticky stuff that connects grains of sand, silt, etc together. This helps your soil catch and hold nutrients that might normally wash down. These are your friends.
There’s fungus in your soil, unless it’s been killed off. Fungi grow little strands all through the soil. A strand, or mycelium, can geat really long. You won’t believe me if I tell you, so look it up. The fungus has the same relationship with the plant as bacteria, but even more amazing. It finds what the plant wants to exchange and can bring nutrients from a long, long way away. These are also your friends.
Some worms can do damage to your plants. That’s not the case most of the time though. Worms do an amazing job of breaking down organic matter (they have bacteria in their guts that helps). They turn the soil, improving even soil with a lot of clay. Worms also glue sand and silt together as part of what they do. This catches nutrients.
What happens when you till? You disturb the environment for all of the above critters. They tend to balance each other in nature, but we’re really good at throwing off that balance. The mycelium highway is destroyed. The ground is exposed to more oxygen (it’s an acid). The top soil can dry and even be blown away by the wind.
Tilling is not our friend. Neither is fertilizer, nor bug killer.
Want to know more? I recommend reading “Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Jeff Lownfels.
Got a big farm? Figure that no till is impossible for you? I know that it’s being done with cotton, corn and other grains. You’ll save a lot on water, inputs AND improve your soil.
I’d like to see a less intensive method for stuff that grows underneath the ground. It’s kind of hard to harvest onions, potatoes, peanuts, beets, carrots and the like on a massive scale without pulling up the whole field. Please let me know if you run across any solutions!