It is the nature of Man to despise what is most precious.
In America they call it dirt. In England we call it soil. Neither word displays any form of respect let alone reverence.
For the most part we ignore it. Bury it under housing estates and motorways or curse it when brought into our houses through our own lack of care. A lump of clay on the bottom of a shoe.
At times it is wantonly abused. In1930’s this resulted in the dust bowl and migration of over 3 million people to California in search of work and to earn their livelihood. Some say that modern intensive agricultural practice is leading us in the same direction.
Close acquaintance with earth over the past eight weeks of hand digging and clearance has ignited my interest in what it is and how it works for us. After all, remove earth from the food chain and we would quickly starve to extinction.
My allotment plot sits firmly within the South Suffolk rolling clayland landscape. When dry and compressed the earth is dense and impenetrable for any but the most persistent plants. In Suffolk these are docks and stinging nettles. When wet it is equally unmanageable, clinging to tools and boots.
In France these are the same soils beloved of wine producers. Vine roots work their way deep into the subsoil and produce the distinct varietal characteristics of Burgundian French wines. Geology does not respect national boundaries. Teroir is as much a factor of allotment grown vegetables as it is in wine production. Why else does our produce taste better than anything you can buy in a supermarket?
Cultivated top soil contains four main elements. First there is the mineral content, comprising the ground up residue of ancient rock formations, then mixed in a 10:1 ratio with decayed vegetal matter. These contain the primary chemicals and nutrients essential for plant growth. Add to these the same content by volume of the other essentials for cultivation, water, and air. Together with sunlight these make a potent brew, sufficient to sustain our life on Earth.
Our bedrock is formed from Eocene London clay, dating from around 400 million years ago. It is liberally scattered with flint, formed from siliceous sponges from the waters of Cretaceous seas. These date from around 65 million years ago, up to the time when the dinosaurs ended with extinction. We still find the fossil remains of these creatures from time to time.
The flints come in different forms. Some retain their original shape when they were formed as nodules at the bottom of the warm seas and lakes that covered most of East Anglia. Others are worn smooth by that other great force that formed our Suffolk landscape, the Anglian glaciation approximately 500,000 years ago, from roughly the time when Mankind started to emerge from primitive humanoids.
The earth that forms my allotment is the end product of hundreds of millions of years of sedimentary rock formation, ground down by climate and wear and tear. With a little care it will give back every form of nutrition required to sustain healthy life, as it has done for the past hundreds of years.
Of course, some soils are more fertile than others. In Suffolk our soil is clay based, retaining moisture and nutrients. My fellow allotmenteers take this for granted. Coming from the thin sandy soils of Surrey and North West Hampshire, our Suffolk soils are a joy to work.
Soil scientists carry out detailed analysis of soil types to determine how they can be used most effectively. There is another way, just as effective. Look at the natural flora they support. In Surrey and Hampshire much of the land is too poor for agriculture but is left to rank grasses and heathland, or that most pernicious of overstayed guests, the Scots pine.
Left untended our Suffolk soils support a rich variety of broadleaf trees, grasses, deep-rooted weeds and even wild forms of legumes, the same botanical family as peas and beans. Their natural fertility is clearly visible to the naked eye. For commercial reasons large-scale farming tends towards monoculture – extensive farming of a limited variety of crops. On our allotments we naturally follow the old principles of crop rotation and multi-culture. Summer beans extract their own nitrogen needs from the air, so are a good follow-un crop. Winter brassicas are greedy feeders and respond well to composted vegetation. Spring potato planting is an opportunity to turn over the soil, aerating and feeding.
So enough of that. The allotment project has now reached the stage where I am more concerned with fending off the natural predators trying to grab the fruits of my labours for themselves – wireworms, caterpillars, slugs and cabbage whites, not to mention the woodpigeons that will be flying in later on when other food becomes more scarce.
But some time in the future one of the grandchildren will want to know where our earth comes from, and what a tale I’ll have to tell them!