It is very rare for someone to find a true passion in life, something that inspires them, gets them up in the morning and adds happiness to their day. I am lucky to have found such a grá in the art of vegetable gardening. I’m not claiming vegetable growing is the meaning of life but I can firmly say it provides me with unreserved satisfaction and accomplishment. I believe the time working in my garden provides me with the opportunity to become so engrossed in an activity that the part of my mind that harbours worry, anxiety and stress switches off. One aspect of growing vegetables which I find so satisfying is working with the soil, encountering its ability to support life and provide the necessary requirements for growth.
The soil supports a fascinating world of organisms working together to create the soil food web. This food web supports a range of organisms including bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates like the humble earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris). Earthworms play an important role in soil structure and function by recycling organic matter into the soil by breaking down material, contributing to the creation of humus and producing casts enriched with nutrients (1). These actions improve the soil conditions by increasing nutrients available to plants, along with soil aeration which aids root development.
The soil hosts a vast variety of bacteria. One such bacteria supported in the soil is Mycobacterium vaccae. This bacteria is known to boost serotonin in our systems. Scientific trials have shown that after treating mice with the bacteria, it changed their behaviour in a similar manner as antidepressants (2). The bacteria has the ability to reduce stress, therefore having positive impacts upon mental health (3). This is just one of many reasons why the protection of soil is not only vital for food production but also a wealth of potential undiscovered resources.
Soil is one of our most valuable commodities, and it is one of our essential natural resources along with water and air. Soil provides us with a range of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, food production, recreational value, flood alleviation, water filtration and biological diversity; to name a few (4). However, despite the large range of services our soil provides us, it is often undervalued and misunderstood. Soil is currently at risk from degradation and erosion, a problem which appears to be worsening due to intensification, deforestation and drought. To put it into context, depending on the local climatic conditions it can take up to 500 years for an inch of topsoil to form, therefore not exactly making it a renewable resource. However, there are initiatives to raise awareness of the importance of soil, its preservation and the ecosystem services it provides. One such initiative is Grow Observatory, a Europe wide project which aims to engage growers, scientists and those passionate about the land. It aims to achieve the following objective; to help people understand and improve soil and food growing practices, by contributing soil moisture data over a large geographical scale, by empowering people to work on these topics collaboratively aiding climate science, impact on policy and make a difference in our own actions. For greater detail on the goals and objectives of Grow Observatory check out; www.growobservatory.org
Today more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities (DG Report 2012). Although these cities only occupy 2% of the Earth’s surface their population use 75% of the Earth’s natural resources (UNEP & UN-Habitat 2005). This has the potential to lead to a population isolated from wilderness, nature and becoming even more distant for the knowledge of the ecosystem services the environment provides us, in particular the soil. I believe the importance of soil, and the services it provides, can be highlighted to the public through opportunities to work with the soil in a positive and engaging way. One opportunity to do so is to promote and encourage urban and community gardens within towns and cities. This offers people the ability to grow their own vegetables, become engaged and educated in the process of food production, while also learning about the benefits of healthy soil ecosystems. There are many chances to participate in community gardens in numerous locations throughout Galway City. More information on these resources can be found at www.letsgetgalwaygrowing.ie
The satisfaction of sowing a seed, providing the correct environment for its growth and development, watching it produce a crop to harvest and enjoy, to me this is the upmost connectivity with nature, our precious soil and earth. It may be just be the mental health boosting bacteria talking but working in my vegetable garden lifts my mind. Although I recognise the chores requiring attention around me, I view it very much as a means to end. The means just happen to be enjoyable, that tiredness in your body after an afternoon digging, weeding and maintaining beds is much more of a physical achievement as opposed to the often mental strain and stress of staring at a screen all day.
Sheila Murphy is a full time Ecologist who also runs The Salad Project, a salad and vegetable growing adventure in Co. Mayo. Check out The Salad Project on Instagram (@thesalad project).