Q & A with Elizabeth Murphy, Author of “Building Soil: A Down To Earth Approach”

By Shelley Pierce | September 13, 2015
Image by Elizabeth Murphy
by Shelley Pierce
September 13, 2015

How do you recognize healthy soil?

How much can your existing soil be improved?

What are the best amendments to use for your soil?

Sound familiar? These are questions we have all pondered while tending to our gardens and the answers may not have always been forthcoming or easy.  Our quest to achieve rich, organic soil may not have always met with success or, at times, even intimidated us.  “Building Soil: A Down to Earth Approach” by Elizabeth Murphy, seeks to change all that by putting healthy, organic soil within everyone’s reach by simplifying the process of soil building.  We recently had the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Murphy to “get the dirt” on her new book.

Why are you so passionate about soil and what continues to fuel your passion for soil after all these years?

Soils are the foundation of all life on earth. Protecting and nurturing makes everyday lives richer and more satisfying by greening our gardens, neighborhoods, and cities. In addition, it is a fundamental piece of the more complex global problems we face, such as global food production, climate change, and environmental pollution. Creating healthy soils in our own backyards and neighborhoods is part of the solution to these problems, while improving diverse aspects of life from providing pollinator habitat to ensuring clean drinking water.

What is your most often asked question about soil?

“How do I deal with heavy clay soil?” Lately, in California, “what do I do for the soil during the drought?”

Is any soil type rectifiable and capable of redemption after reading your book?

Almost any soil type will respond to good soil nourishment throughout the seasons (the most important time for soil feeding is in the fall). This relies on caring for and promoting the activity of the living soil by feeding and sheltering it with living plants and organic matter from diverse sources.

Even extreme textures of sand or clay will respond to strategies that focus on the health of the living soil. Although, at these extremes (and very few of us actually have soils this marginal), we may have to modify our expectations of what we can grow. Within the capabilities of even these extremely marginal soils, however, we can have bountiful gardens with soil care and feeding.

The back cover of your book says “even experienced gardeners can be intimidated by soil.” Why is it, do you think, that people are intimidated by soil? How does your book make soil less intimidating for both beginner gardeners and the more experienced crowd?

People are intimidated by soil because caring for it has become reduced to interpreting soil tests, a collection of letters and numbers that have little intuitive connection to what we do in our gardens. Soil tests are an important tool, but they only give information about the abstract, chemical part of the soil and not what’s happening in the living soil. Treating the soil as a living thing makes soil care much more accessible. The living soil needs what we need – food, water, shelter, and air. When we change our paradigm to think about our soils, our gardens, and our green cities in this way, we can intuitively know how to take care of it.

After reading your book, what is the most important take-away that you want people to have about soil?

The soil is alive. Care for the soil like a living thing, and it will care for you.

Can you share a success story of someone who has applied the knowledge in your book?

A gardener from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State bought a 3-acre farm, whose soil had been neglected and negatively impacted by pasturing. Instead of roto-tilling her garden, she took the time to start her gardens with soil health in mind. She relied on sheet mulching, cover cropping, and using the organic debris like orchard trimmings and leaves from other parts of her property to feed the soil and promote soil life. In the first year, as the sheet mulch activated the natural fertility of the living soil, she accepted that she couldn’t grow all the vegetables she wanted. Instead she planted high producing winter and summer squash to maximize her harvest. By the third year, she has yet to till, but continues to mulch every year and fertilize with manure in the spring. She now has an extensive and diverse mixed vegetable garden that also host berries, flowers, and some young fruit trees. Her plants look healthier, need less water, and require less weeding than her neighbors, while she has more food than she can eat.

More stories, secrets, and tools for growing juicy, living soils for better gardens and a greener planet can be found at the following links:

Website: Dirty Little Secrets

Facebook: www.facebook.com/dirtsecrets

twitter: @dirtlilsecrets

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