I have a friend, Julia, who is a landscape designer and when COVID struck, everyone had to pivot including me. In-person events were canceled indefinitely, so when she graciously asked if I wanted to work with her, helping to create and maintain gardens using native plants, I accepted. One of the many things she’s taught me is that the organic matter that covers our planet is soil, not dirt. I’ve been doing my best to teach everyone else.

Soil: the upper layer of earth in which plants grow, a black or dark brown material typically consisting of a mixture of organic remains, clay, and rock particles.

Dirt: a substance, such as mud or dust, that soils someone or something.

I agree that calling soil “dirt” sullies it.


Here’s another word that is often substituted for soil.

Earth: the substance of the land surface; soil.

I think that it’s kind of funny that we call the soil on our planet earth. I wonder if on Mars, the Martians called their dusty red soil mars. But honestly, whoever thought of that was thinking in very limited terms. Earth isn’t just the ground we walk on, it’s everything, us included.

I am just beginning to read a book called Cows Save the Planet and Other Improbable Ways of Restoring Soil to Heal the Earth.

In the introduction, there is an alarming statistic. The writer wrote that our food is not as nutritious as it used to be. She said that when the phrase “An apple a day keeps the doctor away” was coined, only one apple was required to stay healthy. Today you’d need to eat four or five to get the same amount of vitamins and minerals. Our food is not as nutritious because the soil is not as nutrient-rich. I’m hoping this book moves from alarming to inspiring soon.

It’s not my goal to alarm you. I was not surprised that our food is less nutritious. I was a little surprised at how much less. But, we can get back to one apple a day, by diverting our food scraps through composting, and recover those nutrients for our soil and ultimately us.

I learned, as I was searching the internet for a good link to the book, that not only does the publisher Chelsea Green Publishing have a lot of titles about soil amending and food growing but they are also employee-owned.

Dirt Balls

I usually start writing this blog, then take a break and come back to it a few days later. Sometimes this means that other topics are introduced into it, but it’s also fun when related items pop up. I have a neighbor, Tom, an older man, who gives me copies of Archaeology magazine when he is finished with them. The magazine he gave me today was opened to a page that had a photo of a round, brown object. My first thought was cookie? Nope. My second: loaf of bread? Wrong again. (Do you notice how food-focused I am?) This is the caption: A ball made of compacted earth may have been a memento that was taken home from a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine in the Holy Land. Love it!

This particular article was about The Galloway Hoard, found in a region of southwestern Scotland. It was buried treasure discovered eight years ago and dates to about 900 AD during the Viking Age.

Though there were many more conventionally valuable items in this treasure trove: silver arm bands used as currency, an ornate silver cross, a gold bird pin, decorative jars and vessels, the principal curator cataloging the items said that his favorites were “the dirt balls.” I need to talk to that man.

Artificial Soil

I explained to my neighbor Tom that I was writing about soil this month and he asked if I’d heard of terra preta, an artificial soil invented by ancient South Americans. What? No! (I have this feeling that I’m going to be adding “talk to Tom” to my blog routine.)

I was intrigued by the term “artificial soil”. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Was it like turf grass? It turns out that it’s not exactly artificial, it’s anthropogenic. That’s a word that we usually associate with global warming but it just means man-made.

Terra preta consists of charcoal residues, tiny pottery shards, organic matter such as plant residues, animal feces, fish and animal bones, and other material; and of nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, zinc and manganese.

It’s unclear if terra preta was made on-purpose. Maybe it wasn’t at first, but aren’t a lot of great discoveries made accidentally?

One of the cool things about this terra preta is that it was originally made in 450 BC through 950 AD and the soil is still more fertile there now! I imagine those pre-Columbian South American farmers looking into their crystal ball at us in 2022 AD and being appalled at how we’re squandering our soil. And we’re supposedly the more evolved ones!

Terra preta is reminding me of the modern-day equivalent biochar. I’m just beginning to learn about it. It’s like charcoal but it’s different in that it is intended as a soil amendment, not as a fuel. It’s made by burning wood or organic matter. Ideally, biochar is made in a way that captures the energy created in the burning for another purpose.

Sometimes biochar is combined with compost to amend soil. Like composting, it can be done on a smaller or bigger scale. It’s another way to recover resources and sequester carbon and it increases the nutrients in the plants grown in it.

Project Drawdown, the world’s leading resource for climate solutions, has good synopses if you’d like to learn more about biochar and composting.

Don’t Give Up

Some students at Northwestern University hosted an Environmental Justice Teach-In on Earth Day that I was fortunate to attend. One of the speakers was a Puerto Rican-born, Minneapolis-based artist/activist Ricardo Levins Morales, who said something with tears in his eyes that really stuck with me. He has this dream, vision, manifestation and that is that in the future he pictures a group of people around a ritual fire thanking their ancestors, us, for not giving up.

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Zero Waste Consultant | Collective Resource, Inc.

Mary Beth strongly believes that, “It’s always better to be doing something rather than nothing.” If you’re thinking of composting at home, she can help you work out what your particular “something” can be.

She’s confident a solution can be tailored to fit anyone’s needs and ambitions. “Anyone who eats can be a CRI customer, whether you are an individual or a large organization. I want you to understand the advantages of composting, and I can show you how CRI can make it easy.” Mary Beth has successfully designed waste diversion strategies for individuals, schools, houses of worship and other communities. She’s received the governor’s Environmental Hero award for her work at her daughter’s school. Whether you’re starting with a backyard bin, a kitchen bucket, a worm farm, or large-scale commercial collection, Mary Beth can be your good-natured guide.