top of page

PERMACULTURE: Be a Soil Farmer

Photo credit: Diane Kennedy.
Soil contains organic matter and life.

By Diane C. Kennedy.

Permaculturists are soil farmers first and plant growers second. All the world’s wealth is in its soil and the real gold is the microorganisms that thrive there. The presence of microorganisms is the distinction between what is dirt and what is soil. Dirt is compacted, usually treated with ‘cides’ such as herbicide, and repels water. If plants grow there, they are ‘repair’ weeds which try to begin the slow process of creating topsoil.  Soil contains life: millions of microbes, fungus, bacteria, nematodes and more all on a microscopic level.  Soil has macropores between the sand grains that allow rain and roots to penetrate. Yet not all soils are the same and certainly there is not one soil that will be right for every plant. 

When creating soil understand the weather of the plant’s hometown. For instance, native San Diegan plants for the most part need well-draining soil that is not heavy in organic material nor earthworms. They thrive on minimal watering and a small amount of organic material. While avocadoes, Persea americana, also require excellent drainage they also need a high amount of organic material in the topsoil. Vast wild avocado forests are found in Latin American countries. Their branches occlude the sun leaving the forest floor shaded and protected from the hammering effect of frequent rains. As the topsoil is not deep, avocadoes have shallow roots that rely on the thick leaf coverage to provide food for their microbial buddies. In contrast, many dormant fruit trees come from areas with limited summers and cold winters. They have deep roots to get away from the frozen surface, and upward-facing branches to take advantage of as much light as possible as they reproduce.  They also depend upon a thick leaf cover to help mitigate the cold and soften the pelting sleet. 

Take into consideration the native wildlife with which these plants grew up. Birds, mammals, reptiles and insects all inhabit plant communities, and they all poop, pee, shed, molt, fling food around and die, adding lots of organic materials to the soil that the plant has come to use to survive. When you don’t encourage native animals in your yard, for instance, allowing domestic cats to roam and predate on birds and reptiles, or spreading poisons that will kill off predators up the food chain, then you are eliminating this essential part of natural fertilization as well as depleting the ecosystem.

Photo credit: Diane Kennedy.
Sheet mulching around trees imitates natural leaf drop.

Nature is constantly building topsoil, and permaculturalists study what conditions make plants happy and build that soil life accordingly. A rich, earthworm-y soil will make apples very happy, but can kill a mesquite. The best possible fertilizers are the leaves, flowers, fruit, nuts and seeds dropped from the plant itself. If a tree drops lots of leaves, then it needs thick mulch around its roots, and raking it all out will damage the soil and stress the plant. If a plant drops few leaves and has a sprawling form, its own shape is protecting and cooling its roots and providing just the right amount of food it needs. Nature doesn’t work on a human timeline; nature has eons, and comparatively our human lives pass in a nano-second. To speed up the soil-building process to fit our timeline, cover the ground with leaves or mulch, build microbial communities where appropriate by topdressing with specific composts, and allow the plants to tell us if they are unhappy by observing changes in leaf color or growth habits. 

Photo credit: Diane Kennedy.
Monkeyflower and penstemon thrive in native soil with minimal water.

Understanding that soil is thriving with beneficial life is what allows us to back away from chemical applications and have better food, air and habitat. Share a smoothie with your soil microbes; they will love you for it!


Photo credit: Diane Kennedy.
Diane Kennedy next to native fleabane.

Diane Kennedy has certificates in Permaculture Design, Irrigation, QWEL, and an AA in Landscape Architecture.

She has been designing, consulting, writing and lecturing about permaculture since 2011. 

She and her daughter, Miranda, own and operate Finch Frolic Garden Permaculture, a food forest through which they give educational classes. They both volunteer with the Fallbrook Land Conservancy’s Native Plant Restoration Team.


bottom of page