Dixon on...Vital asset demands careful husbandry

Soil is field and green-space horticulture's most valuable living asset. Like many natural assets, it is ill-treated. Last year's weather brought record levels of flooding and waterlogging.

Geoff Dixon
Geoff Dixon

As a result, soil structure collapsed and shortages of oxygen are encouraging deleterious anaerobic microbes. These microbes solubilise nutrients that are leached from the soil, they form toxic organic compounds and increase acidity.

All of Britain's damaged soils demand careful husbandry aiming at restoring structure and fertility. Marching into waterlogged, high-quality vegetable land with massive machinery is not the answer. Forcing soils with damaged structures into seed beds will result in capping at the first shower, which stops seed germination.

Once the drains start flowing, aeration with single tines and small ploughs is essential. Restoring fertility with manure, compost and lime is a prime requirement — and it will pay financial dividends of nitrogen.

Applying large quantities of nitrogen into semi-anaerobic, acidic soils simply results in nitrification and leaching. That means more nitrate pollution going into ponds and rivers. Public money will be wasted firstly on the fertiliser and secondly in cleaning up the attendant pollution.

Soil is a vital rural and urban asset essential for public welfare. Water, another vital natural asset, is accorded legislative protection. Why not soil? The events of 2012 emphasise the need for soil care and restoration strategies.

There is a role here for national and local authorities and agencies. Coordination between Defra, Natural England, the Environment Agency, the Department for Communities and the local authorities is needed. Is that far too much to expect?

Professor Geoffrey Dixon is managing director of GreenGene international

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