By: Rosmarie Lohnes BA CoEn, President Helping Nature Heal Inc.
Soil is the basis of everything on Earth including food, clean air, and water. When we care for the soil, we care for our own well-being. 2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils by the United Nations. I was thrilled to learn this, as my passion lies deep in the soil, and making dirt is one of my favourite things to do!
As an Ecological Landscape Designer, my art is in creating landscapes that not only suit my clients’ needs, but also those of the ecosystems my clients live within. My media are the building blocks of nature – soil, mulch, manure, and plants. In order to create thriving sustainable landscapes, I must minimize external inputs and consider the health of the soil first. As one of my mentors told me years ago, “when we take care of the soil, the soil will take care of us”. Everything depends on the soil, so much so that our company, Helping Nature Heal, could be considered to be a part of the ‘brown’ sector as well as the ‘green’.
When I first visit client landscapes, I often notice that there isn’t enough soil in places where it is needed to create the client’s landscape dreams. In order to accomplish our shared goals, we must then add soil. I typically work on client landscapes that are either new developments or mature and overgrown.
New developments tend to have very little soil, and what is left is quite compacted. This is because all viable soil is generally removed during building construction. Because of this, I am often called in after construction to help bring nature back to the land – which of course starts with rebuilding the soil.
When I work on older landscapes, I typically find that they have been beaten by wind, waves, and time. In these landscapes much of the healthy soil has eroded away, leaving bare rock and compacted soil where it is difficult to establish plant communities. On both these types of land, making healthy soil is the first step in transforming the landscape.
Over the past 14 years, Helping Nature Heal has developed our own unique recipe for re-creating the soil horizon when added soil is needed. When working to build the soil, I begin by assessing the existing conditions. I then delve deep into the client’s plant wish list and observe the surrounding environment so that I can design an appropriate soil horizon. I work with my team to develop what we call ‘strategic composting’.
Strategic composting means combining what is onsite with other local biomass to create a healthy layer of decomposing materials. Often times, we use bags of leaves that have been collected from the surrounding neighbourhood, flake out hay bales in a checkerboard pattern, and cover all that with a tightly woven brush. We leave gaps within this layer of biomass so that pockets of specially-formulated soil mix can be incorporated where plants can be added, extending their roots to help hold the decomposing material in place. Finally, the whole area is covered with 6-8 inches of natural mulch.
This ‘strategic composting’ method helps to recreate the soil horizon over time, while the pockets of soil allow for some plants to get established right away. As decomposition occurs and new soil is created, additional plants can be introduced to the area.
Making dirt is a long-term commitment and a dynamic relationship. It is the most important way that we can, quite literally, give back to the Earth. As a Designer, I value the process of creating healthy soil above all else. It is very satisfying to use these processes over the long term to generate habitat for plant communities where none could previously exist. The soil is the first link in the food chain and an important building-block for life. Making dirt is making life. It is the potential for life renewed.