There has been a huge resurgence of gardening in recent years – and for good reason. More people are watching the toxic, conventional food system and deciding to opt out whenever possible, setting up their own gardens, working with neighbors in community gardens, or supporting local small farmers through markets and co-ops. The trend isn’t only taking place in the U.S., but in Britain too, where a new study indicates these smaller food producers are leaving the soil much healthier than their large-scale counterparts.
The research comes from the British Ecological Society. It says that commercial farming results in damaged soil, with declines in necessary carbon stocks, damaged soil structure, and a reduction in the ability to retain water and nutrients. Small-scale growing, on the other hand, with its diverse planting and organic methods, leaves the soil intact and enriched.
In certain areas, British citizens are able to apply for allotments, plots of land where they are allowed to grow food in otherwise urban settings. Currently, there is a waiting list of more than 90,000 people attempting to grow on these allotments. This latest study calls on the government to expand the program in the interest of both health and soil conservation.
For the research, soil samples were taken from 27 different plots on 15 allotment sites. Other samples were taken from local parks, gardens, and large-scale agricultural operations. Dr. Jill Edmondson from the University of Sheffield then analyzed soil carbon levels, total nitrogen, the ratio between these two measurements, and soil bulk density to measure compaction.
“An estimated 800 million city dwellers across the world participate in urban food production, which makes a vital contribution to food security. Our results suggest that in order to protect our soils, planning and policy making should promote urban own-growing rather than further intensification of conventional agriculture as a more sustainable way of meeting increasing food demand,” said Edmondson.
The results: allotment soil had 32% more carbon and 36% higher carbon to nitrogen ratios. It also had 25% higher nitrogen levels and was “significantly less compacted”. In other words, the small growers had sustained if not enriched soil health while conventional growers depleted the soil.
“We found remarkable differences in soil quality between allotments and arable fields,” she says. “Our study shows how effectively own-growers manage soils, and it demonstrates how much modern agricultural practices damage soils.”
So what’s happening in these small-scale gardens that isn’t happening in the large ones? The small growers are tending to the land. They are growing for a smaller population and growing much less food, able to treat each plant and row of plants with greater care and attention. They are utilizing crop rotation. They aren’t rolling the field with large machinery (leading to soil compaction), spraying large quantities of pesticides, or creating a monoculture of crops that deplete the soil.
They are growing as ancient people have grown for centuries, and the soil is remaining healthier for it.
“Using urban land, including domestic gardens, allotments and community gardens for own-growing is an important and often overlooked way of increasing productivity whilst also reconnecting urban dwellers with food production.
As well as improving food security, studies show that own-growing has direct physical and mental health benefits, and can provide access to sustainably produced fruit and vegetable crops without the associated food miles.”